What is Semantic SEO?

by Posted @ Mar 18 2021

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What are the differences between SEO and Semantic SEO?

SEO has always been marketing in the framework of the Web. Semantic SEO introduces site owners to consumers to make communication easier between the two about goods and services offered. Because of this, consumers can become customers easier and learn more about those offers.

In SEO, pages rank highly in search results based on information retrieval scores using relevance and authority signals from things such as backlinks from other pages and sites.

Semantic SEO is different from SEO. It focuses on real-world objects or entities made up of people, places, and things (such as ideas and concepts.) A page about entities contains information about the attributes of those entities. These include facts that describe those entities and identifiers that can help someone learn about an entity. They focus on tasks such as question-answering over receiving a set of URLs that answer a search query.

A Semantic SEO search results page can include knowledge panels, search carousels filled with entities, featured snippets that may answer questions about the entities in a query, related questions (“People also ask” questions that may be like the featured snippet answers), related entities, and more. There is a lot of variety in Semantic SEO SERPs pages like there is in universal search SERPs pages in SEO.

Entities and Semantic SEO

Focusing on Entities can make a lot of sense. For example, a website about the City of Baltimore might contain information about the people who lived there. It can also look at monuments left behind in their memories. It can also tell you about the famous churches and schools in the city and well-known buildings, places, and businesses.

If you write about Baltimore, you would want to dig into the city’s history. You would pay attention to people and places that visitors might be most interested in finding out about. Learn about the history that brought America its national anthem. Instead of optimizing a page for terms or phrases on the page, write about the actual people, places, and things that tell visitors the information they might be most interested in. Let them know about facts associated with those entities.

In the mid-2000s, Google had engineers working on a project known as the Annotation Framework. This was from Andrew Hogue, also responsible for managing the acquisition of MetaWeb, with the volunteer directory Freebase. If Google could not build the technology behind entities, they could acquire it.

You can learn more about those efforts by reading the Resume of Andrew Hogue. It includes information about what he was doing at Google during his career. He also created a Google Tech Talk video about what Google was doing at the time that is worth watching:

More Facts in Search Results Using Semantic SEO

Another aspect of Semantic SEO at Google is moving away from 10 blue links to search results filled with rich results. This was originally described in a Google Blog post by Ramanathan Guha. It is also in the post Introducing Rich Snippets by Kavi Goel, Ramanathan V. Guha, and Othar Hansson.

In 2012 Google expanded the information found in Freebase and gave us search results that provided more information about entities that appear in queries, or at least the entities that Google knows about and may have included in the knowledge graph. (See: How Google’s Knowledge Graph works)

We can see more information about entities in knowledge panels, often following knowledge templates based on the type of entity that those are about. For local business entities, we will often see sentiment-based reviews about those businesses. We may see query revisions related to the entities displayed in the panels. Knowledge panels often tell us query log information about other entities that “people also search for.”

Providing More Information about Entities by Site Owners Using Schema

In 2011, Google joined with other search engines to provide machine-readable information about entities that appear on pages on the Schema.org website. This way of sharing between search engines is like when they developed XML sitemaps earlier.

Schema is a rapidly growing area of Semantic SEO, and more effort is undertaken to update Schema with new Releases. It is possible to get involved in discussions about new and developing schema by subscribing to the public-schemaorg@w3.org Mail Archives

SEOs can learn about Schema these days as part of Semantic SEO and study developing aspects of Schema. For example, showing stars in search results for products can increase clicks and are worth learning about. I also keep an eye on new emails from the schema mailing group and new revisions to the schema as they come out.

Knowledge Growing On the Web in Semantic SEO?

Sergey Brin filed an early patent from Google in 1999 after Lawrence Page filed the PageRank patent a year earlier. I wrote about that in the post Google’s First Semantic Search Invention was Patented in 1999. This algorithm was named the DIPRE algorithm after “Dual Iterative Pattern Relation Expansion.” You can use it to find sites with information about specific books and attributes of those books, such as publications, which the publishers were, how many pages each had, and more. If a site had all of the books from the seed set in the patent, the algorithm told it to collect information about the other books that it contained at well.

At the start of last year (2020), Google filed a continuation patent to collect information about books to display in search results. This continuation patent is about all kinds of entities and not only books anymore. My post about this patent is Rich Results Patent from Google Moves on from Only Books. It provides more details about collecting facts about entities than the 2009 Google blog post about rich results.

Google is Focusing on Learning Directly from Pages on the Web

Google patents also tell us about how Google might collect information about entities directly from the web. One of the most detailed about using natural language processing to collect part of speech information and entity recognition to build triples (Subject/Verb/Object) about those entities. For more details on how Google may do that see: Entity Extractions for Knowledge Graphs at Google

Besides to the entity extraction approach described in that patent, another entity extraction approach uses data wrappers. Google has likely been doing with name, address, and phone information for local search for as long as Google Maps has been around. This approach is being used for sites that collect data about different types of entities. Examples are television episodes and songs from musical artists and business addresses. This is another way that Google uses Semantic SEO to better learn about facts that it might show as answers to queries from searchers. I wrote about this in the post Extracting Entities with Automated Data Wrappers.

Expanding Meanings for Answers by Rewriting Queries

SEOs have been doing Semantic SEO for almost as long as there has been SEO. We don’t just optimize pages for keywords. We optimize pages for meanings because the search engines can understand that we create pages related to the meanings in a query that a searcher might perform.

In 2003 Google started rewriting queries that people performed by replacing synonyms for words.

Google develops more sophisticated ways of substituting synonyms using the Hummingbird approach, which I wrote about on the day it came out in the post: The Google Hummingbird Update and the Likely Patent Behind Hummingbird. That patent came out a few weeks before Google announced it on Google’s 15th Birthday.

Semantic SEO Uses New Technology, Such as Language Models

Understanding Semantic SEO means being aware of the technologies and approaches that Google uses to extract entity information from the web. It also means building knowledge graphs using that technology. Google acquired Wavii in 2013, which used an open domain information extraction process they described in videos and papers. I wrote about it in With Wavii, Did Google Acquire the Future of Web Search? We have seen Google crawling the web, trying to learn about everything it can since then. This has used Word Vectors, and natural language Processing language models such as BERT and MUM.

Google later told us about using an artificial language approach that used a Word Vectors Approach to rewrite ambiguous queries and expand them with missing words in those queries. These queries could capture missing meanings and answers to queries that Google was having difficulties with before. I linked citations behind the Word Vectors Approach in the post Citations behind the Google Brain Word Vectors Approach.

Google has also expanded Natural Language Processing using pre-training language models such as BERT in several papers from Google in the past few years. I wrote about how a Word Vector approach (like in Rankbrain) was being used for question-answering in the post Question Answering Using Text Spans With Word Vectors

Here is an example of a search result where Hummingbird is replacing the word “place” with the word “restaurant: “replacing the word “place” with the word “restaurant:”

Semantic SEO with Entities in them

This is an example of real-world entities and understanding the meaning behind the words in a query. It is about how SEO is becoming Semantic SEO.

SERPs Augmented with Knowledge Results

A few years ago Google Paul Haahr presented at SMX West in How Google Works: A Google Ranking Engineer’s Story:

A Google patent that came out after that presentation told us that Google would look in queries for entities, as Paul Haahr told us. And, if Google finds an entity in that query, it may decide to augment the search results with knowledge-based results. Again, a Semantic SEO approach to search. I wrote about this patent in Augmented Search Queries Using Knowledge Graph Information.

See People Also Ask Queries and Ontologies in Image Search Labels

So again, Google shows us that Semantic SEO focuses on finding real-world objects in queries that searchers perform. Knowledge results can include featured snippets, which answer questions that many people ask about those entities. Those results can also include other questions, often referred to as “related questions” or “people also ask” questions. They may find those related questions to crowdsource them by looking in query logs for related questions in a question graph. I wrote about those in Google Related Questions now use a Question Graph.

I pointed out the labels that Google uses for categories to my co-workers. Google tells us in a blog post that they associate machine ID numbers with entities in image search. This is at Improving Photo Search: A Step Across the Semantic Gap

And categories in image search show related entities and concepts in an ontology based on your search terms. I detailed this in Google Image Search Labels Becoming More Semantic? If you are doing keyword research for pages and want to better understand related entities and concepts for those pages, search for those terms on Google Image search. Labels can tell you about entities and terms related to people, places, and things.

Learn About Entities and Personalized Knowledge Graphs from Google

There is an open access book (free) by a computer scientist who worked as an intern at Google for a year. I highly recommend reading it. The author is Krisztian Balrog, and his book is Entity-Oriented Search. It covers the use of entities at Google quite well. He also wrote a paper on entities for a conference that is worth looking at: Personal Knowledge Graphs: A Research Agenda

The idea of personalized knowledge graphs was very interesting. I ran across a couple of Google patents that covered that area, and wrote about them. These are those posts:

Semantic Topic Models in Semantic SEO

Back in 2006, I wrote about Anna Lynn Patterson’s Phrase-Based Indexing in Move over PageRank: Google is Using Phrase-Based Searching?. I expanded on this many times over the years. Google has around 20 related patents on different aspects of phrase-based indexing. I added to it a post called Thematic Modeling Using Related Words in Documents and Anchor Text which shows off how frequently reappearing co-occurring phrases tend to be very predictive about what the pages those are about.

A couple of years later, I wrote about a continuation patent for Phrase-based indexing that turned it from a reranking approach to a direct ranking approach: Google Phrase-Based Indexing Updated. This can make phrase-based indexing very valuable.

Answering Queries using Knowledge Graphs

In Answering Questions Using Knowledge Graphs I wrote about association scores giving different weights to tuples about entities. They use their sources to give them weight. I also write about how Google might receive a query and create a knowledge graph based on those weights in providing answers. This is in the patent application Natural Language Processing With An N-Gram Machine.

I provide several examples of search carousels. Those show entities that answer queries like in that patent application in the post Ranked Entities in Search Results at Google.

A search carousel with ranked entities appears in SERPs for a query at Google, such as “Best Science Fiction Books 2020.”

A Search Carousel based on entities from a Knowledge graph

These books are from query results filled with entities shown in a carousel in a ranked order.

Knowledge graphs can show personalized results for people and answer questions. I covered that in the post User-Specific Knowledge Graphs to Support Queries and Predictions

User-Specific Knowledge graph

Semantic Keywords in Semantic SEO and No LSI Keywords

Under Semantic SEO, the search will collect real-world information about you and answer relevant questions. Semantic SEO brings us to a world that includes smart devices during the internet of things. This can mean smarter cars and kitchen devices and email connections with many others in the world.

I recently wrote about semantic keywords and the possibility of a new tool from Google that suggests such keywords. There is more about keywords and that new tool in this post: Semantic Relevance of Keywords. In that post I mention LSI Keywords, and how they likely are not used by search engines such as Google. I researched LSI to learn about where it came from and whether or not Google was using Latent Semantic indexing. After finding the Bell Labs patent behind LSI, and that there was no sign of LSI Keywords from the people who invented LSI, I wrote Does Google Use Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI)? The answer is that it is unlikely that Google uses LSI at all, and never used LSI Keywords either.

The Web Becoming Ready for Semantic SEO?

Back in 2001, Tim Berners-Lee, James Hendler and Ora Lassila wrote the Semantic Web for Scientific American. The sharing of information and data collection described in that paper tells us about the future of Semantic SEO that many places such as Google work towards.

A more semantic web doesn’t stuff pages with synonyms or semantically relevant words. It is, as Tim Berners-Lee wrote:

The Semantic Web is not a separate Web but an extension of the current one, in which information is given well-defined meaning, better-enabling computers and people to work in cooperation.

I thought it was worth sharing some of the things I have seen from the patent office, also on the pages of Google about search becoming more semantic. Most pages ranking in Google for terms such as “Semantic SEO” are filled with synonyms and a lack of understanding about how semantic technology might work. They also mention technology from the 1980s and fail to cover things such as knowledge graphs or schema.

That is a problem that those don’t cover those topics.

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19 Comments

  1. Amazing article Bill! I’ve learned! This is a bookmark and a reference source for me from now on

    • HI Shay,

      Glad you like this post. I had written too many posts about Semantic SEO without having one that covered what it is, and what Google has been publishing about it.

  2. Great insight Bill as always. There isn’t enough emphasis from SEOs when it comes to semantic search.
    Thank you for sharing.

    • Hi Amine,

      There has been a lot of stuff published about some really misleading topics related to semantics, often about technology patented in 1988 which really isn’t related to what search engines like Google are actually doing. I figured I had written about a lot of semantic SEO-related patents, so I had better publish something about it.

  3. Eapks says:

    I love to read your blog. I have a question in my mind that how we can boost our new sites and stand in front of already ranked sites???

    • Hi Eapks,

      The search engines are becoming more semantic whether we want them to or not, so learning how to respond to clients and deal with things such as featured snippets & knowledge panels and more is something that we all have to learn how to deal with. It can mean paying more attention to entities that are related to our sites, making sure that we get relevant and related knowledge panels, using rich results, and the right schema for our sites. Those are starts.

  4. […] March of 2021 Bill wrote What is Semantic SEO? which is one of the best posts I’ve read on implementing  Semantic […]

  5. Great post Bill!
    I always read your articles and I find them really insightful. My question working as an seo consultant, is just, how to adapt to entities for the web. I mean, even with some clients in the italian market, we have tried to built entities, but google still not show them up.
    How do you approach this with your clients?

    • Hi Guilio,.

      I have written posts where entities were part of the content and something I covered. Make the part of what you wrote that people seek, and that makes a difference

  6. Hi Bill, Thanks for sharing this informative article on semantic SEO. I have been putting my head in it for a long time now. Links shared in this post are very useful.

  7. […] Google is a semantic search engine now, which is just a fancy way of saying that Google understands topics and natural language better than ever before. […]

  8. Damn it. I have 10 new tabs open after reading this post. Thank you Bill for clarifying a lot of the concepts of semantic SEO. What about recommendations in YouTube? Also entities?

  9. […] One of the areas of SEO that is worth exploring involves Semantic SEO, which I wrote about in more detail in the post What is Semantic SEO?. […]

  10. Elena says:

    Thank you so much for telling us about semantic SEO. This blog is very informative and useful for all of us! I will share this with my friends also. Keep sharing more!

  11. Ulises says:

    Wow, this information is unique about semantic seo

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  13. […] where “semantic SEO” comes in. It’s about the broader meaning of what people search for and the intent of the […]

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