Table of Contents
The author’s views are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.
Search engine optimization is ever-changing as search engines are continuously evolving. A semantic SEO strategy can help you to carve out a competitive advantage. As search engines adapt to provide the best results to conversation queries, your web content should adapt too.
Once you understand the principles, you can apply semantic SEO writing to any niche. In this post, I’ll outline some of the successful strategies I’ve used across different types of sites along with some insights into the results they have achieved.
Let’s start by explaining a little more about semantic search and content before we examine some useful applications and tips.
How does semantic search work?
Semantic search provides the best results for user queries by understanding user intent and language. Through machine learning and artificial intelligence, search engines have gained a deep knowledge of the semantics (or meaning) of words and phrases, and how they link to each other. Google understands entities and topics, and groups them using The Knowledge Graph.
This is a much more sophisticated approach than the keyword matching that was used by search algorithms in their early days. Today, the semantic search engine is continuously refining its understanding of language so that it can serve the most relevant and helpful results to any given query. This requires an appreciation of the search intent, and the intent of the content being served up to the user.
What are the benefits of semantic search?
The benefits of semantic search are many.
They get a better user experience using search engines because the results they receive are of higher quality.
They can get to the information they need faster, and sometimes even answer their next question before they’ve asked it.
They can search on different devices, in different ways, and still receive qualified results.
For search engines:
They can handle the increase in conversational search queries from devices like smartphones and smart home devices (often through voice search).
They are providing a really useful service, making the general public even more likely to use their search engine, in turn giving them more data to help them learn about human language.
What is semantic content?
In linguistics, semantics refers to the study of meaning. So in this context, semantic content looks to use words, phrases, and sentences to construct a piece of writing with a certain meaning.
A piece of semantic writing aims to utilize the relationships between words, phrases, concepts, and sentences to create a really valuable resource on a certain topic. It’s paying attention to the detail in your piece of content, from sentence structure to overall page structure and everything in between.
In slightly more relatable terms, it’s writing well for humans and following linguistic rules. It’s keeping things clear, concise, and easy to read. It’s using semantically related keywords to contextualize your topics and removing unnecessary words. You don’t need complex language or convoluted text. But you do need in-depth content.
In SEO, this is vital when writing content that you’d like to rank. Natural Language Processing (or NLP) is used by search engines to understand our content, and this process is assessing the words we’ve used, and the relationships between them.
A semantic approach to improving e-commerce SEO
So, with semantics being all about words, how does that apply to selling products? Is it purely for journalists, publishers, and blog sites? Not at all. Semantic SEO is important for all web pages on any website.
You shouldn’t assume semantic SEO isn’t for you if you run an e-commerce site. In fact, it can be really effective in an e-commerce environment. When you’re writing category, product, and landing page copy, you should still think about phrase-based indexing, writing for NLP, content structure, and readability.
Review category and product page content
Make sure all your content is top-notch by making it unique, helpful, detailed, and well-structured. Research the entities that relate to your products and include them on the relevant category, subcategory, and product pages.
Provide in-depth information about your products and product ranges. Consider their benefits and key selling points. This is all helpful for the user experience as well as search engines, so keep your audience in mind and make sure your copy serves a purpose.
Working with one of my e-commerce clients, I focused on NLP terms and entities to create semantic content on over 200 categories, subcategories, product, and information pages. Going beyond basic search term research, we focused on content structure, co-occurrence, entities, synonyms, and the relationship between terms to craft high-performing content.
Here’s an example of a subcategory page that was optimised in this way:
Over a twelve-month period, the brand saw the following results:
Increased non-blog organic sessions: +495.97%
Increased organic transactions: +365.58%
Increased organic revenue: +415.30%
Examine keyword clusters and missing category pages
Using a keyword gap analysis, you can start to uncover the areas your e-commerce store isn’t ranking for in comparison with your closest competitors. You can then use this to lead your strategy for category and subcategory creation. You’re likely to find clusters of keywords on one topic that you don’t have a page to satisfy, so you can create one.
This might cover:
a different way of grouping your products (e.g. by color or style rather than by material)
a supporting guide that you’re missing
a type of product that you don’t sell but could
Examine the common themes in your keyword gap analysis and create a plan for new website pages by grouping these into keyword clusters. Collate the products for a page if necessary, and write the copy carefully, optimizing for multiple keywords in your cluster, combining concepts and ideas to contextualize your overall topic.
I’ve seen a client’s search rankings and traffic soar when they added a key page to fulfill one of their biggest keyword gaps. Overall, the unique keywords they rank for have increased by 47.92% during 2022, and 79.4% since we started working on their new and existing content using this semantic approach:
First place rankings have also increased, by 59.43% during 2022 and staggeringly, by 627.58% since starting work with a semantic approach:
Covering multiple keyword clusters also captures more search traffic and can genuinely help customers who often shop in different ways.
Research and plan supporting content
Create content to support your website visitors’ needs, centered around common product questions and guides. Rather than housing these on your blog or in a resources section, add them to the category or product pages they support.
Semantic SEO is about relationships, and that goes beyond the terms used on a single page or a single piece of content. It covers the way in which pages and topics are clustered together. If you demonstrate that you not only sell a product, but you provide a whole host of expert advice relating to that product, you will demonstrate topical authority.
Consider the use of semantic relationships within and between your pages. You can build a really powerful resource using a series of great pages with strong connections to each other. Use a clear internal linking strategy to get this right.
A hub and spoke approach using a key category page as the center of the hub (or the pillar page) can be especially effective. A large e-commerce client we work with made almost 2% of their revenue from assisted and last click conversions through hub content in a twelve-month period. This might not sound like a large percentage, but when the overall revenue is high, an extra 2% equates to quite a sum.
Here’s a hub and spoke strategy in action, organizing help and advice on washing machines around a central washing machine category page:
Apply schema markup or structured data
Use schema markup or structured data to help signpost your products, FAQs, and other aspects of a given page. It’s also known as semantic markup for a reason! This adds an additional level of information that helps search engines really understand your content.
For example, the below image shows product search results for UK retailers Currys and Argos displaying prices, images, and review ratings:
Adding structured data can help you generate rich snippets because you’re helping Google to organize your content and display it creatively. This can get you more real estate in the SERPs and therefore generate more qualified traffic.
Keep the quality high and helpful
When you’ve built up performance with great quality semantic content, you can still lose ground if you subsequently release a lot of unhelpful, thin, or badly written content.
In Google’s latest documentation about the helpful content update, they explicitly say:
“Any content — not just unhelpful content — on sites determined to have relatively high amounts of unhelpful content overall is less likely to perform well in Search, assuming there is other content elsewhere from the web that’s better to display. For this reason, removing unhelpful content could help the rankings of your other content.” – Source: Google
This goes to show that even if you create fantastic content, it will still suffer if there aren’t enough pages of high-quality content on your website.
When you’re managing a busy e-commerce site and adding lots of new products, it’s easy to let thin, badly written, or even duplicate content slip through the net. But if you do, it can have a knock-on effect and actually harm the progress you’ve been making.
Working with e-commerce clients, I’ve seen this happen. Overall progress has taken a dip when nothing on our top-performing pages has changed. But digging into the data, I’ve often found that a large batch of products has been added to the site with low-quality, rushed descriptions. This has likely had an influence on the overall website content quality and tipped the balance in the wrong direction. If these descriptions had been carefully written for semantic SEO, taking entities, related phrases, and good structure into account, the addition of new products could have increased results across the site rather than hindered progress on key pages.
Once you start creating higher-quality content for semantic search (and your users) it’s really important to keep it up. Consistency is key. If you can, have a plan for every new page that hits the site and make sure it’s as good as it can be within the time restrictions you have.
B2B service and creative industries
Service and creative industries often have quite lengthy, text-rich pages that are ideal for optimizing with a semantic approach.
Content is key
Many B2B service websites and creative industry sites only have a small number of key pages. Unlike e-commerce sites that have hundreds — maybe thousands — of subcategories and product pages, you might have a limited number of options when it comes to your services.
This is where your informational content can play a pivotal role in the success of your site. Through the addition of informative and FAQ content, we increased an e-commerce website’s informational search queries by 75%. But even so, they only account for 12% of their total keyword rankings.
In contrast, for a service site that I work on, informational queries make up 76% of their total keyword rankings. These information pages help to make semantic connections by providing further context around the subjects a service provider specializes in. Without these supporting pages, they wouldn’t be able to display their depth of knowledge or expertise on a topic.
Information pages also help to bring your target audience in at the top of the funnel. Perhaps they’re just starting out in an industry and looking for answers. If you are present in the search results and provide a helpful resource, your brand will be associated with their learning. When they try to think of an expert to help them with a problem later down the line, you’ll stand a good chance of being the one that springs to mind and winning their business.
Structure your content well
As service and creative sites are often quite wordy, it’s vital to use structure to your advantage. This helps out search engines and users alike.
Use clear headings and subheadings to signpost different areas and group common themes within an article or page. Bullet points and bold text can help certain aspects stand out. Proximity within the text can indicate the strength of relationships between phrases and entities.
On the Boom Online website, we structure our content with clear formatting to make text-heavy service pages easier to read:
This is helpful for both search engines and users because relevant information can be located quickly and efficiently.
Don’t forget to use synonyms and close variants
When reviewing service sites, I often find that they stick with one way of saying something for consistency. Perhaps they do it just because that’s how they refer to a certain thing internally. But when you’re optimizing for semantic search, it’s much more beneficial to consider the variety of different ways you can refer to something and use them appropriately.
Let’s look at a digital marketing example: PPC can also be called pay-per-click, sponsored search, keyword auction, paid search, or search advertising. If you stay with just one of these options, you’re likely to be missing out on opportunities for traffic and chances to add context to the meaning of your page.
Here’s a good example of some content about “meet the team” pages. Because synonyms and close variants have been included, it ranks for similar terms like team bios, our team page, team profiles, and many more:
So, research these varied options for your page and use them in a suitable way. Don’t just add them for the sake of it, but add any that make sense. You’ll probably find your page is much more readable due to the variety of language you’ve used, and it will perform better in search too.
Keep your eye on the detail
If you’re using statistics to back up a point or referring to prices or facts, review these regularly. Update your pages to show the most recent stats and research and review pricing changes. Search engines don’t like out-of-date or incorrect information, and they can identify it because they understand the meaning and context they are displayed in.
Creating semantic content in the home & DIY sector
If you’re working in the home and DIY sector, you might be selling high-ticket items or services that require a little extra persuasion to close the sale. The average consumer might not have all the DIY knowledge they need to tackle their project, and is likely to be searching for additional information before they make a purchase.
You can address these sales barriers by creating semantic content that not only helps users but also drives search traffic and increases your chances of becoming a topical authority.
One useful application to consider is adding on-page FAQs that tackle some of the queries consumers might have before they purchase. Not only is this helpful for UX, but it’s also powerful for semantic SEO.
The answers to FAQs enrich your category pages, allowing you to add related entities and complete phrases to support phrase-based indexing.
Keep answers short and succinct, use schema markup, and link to more detailed articles where required.
Implementing this across a DIY client’s site has resulted in a 44% increase in keyword rankings with informational intent since January 2022, from 2.5k informational keywords ranking in Jan 2022 to 3.6k in October 2022.
Working with a lot of home improvement and DIY clients, there’s plenty of scope in this sector for creating detailed how-to and informational guides. This type of content offers an abundance of helpful information to potential customers, and it helps you to rank too.
How-to and other informational guides can bring a wealth of relevant organic traffic, capture featured snippets, and demonstrate your expertise in a topic area. They can also help to drive your target customers through your sales funnel, getting them closer to the buying phase.
If you’re creating this type of content, take the time to make it really detailed, rich, and useful. Add unique images, video content, expert opinions, and more. Think about what it takes to really bring the topic to life, making it an interesting and helpful read. If competitors are doing the same thing, try to set your resource apart as the best by including some media or original insight that they have missed.
Don’t forget to execute a hub and spoke strategy. This can be really powerful if you position key category pages as hub centers, and create spokes to support them. I’ve talked more about this in the e-commerce section.
The technology sector
Selling a very technical product or service presents its own challenges for semantic SEO. Website copy is often written by subject matter experts to maintain accuracy, but this doesn’t always produce the best search results.
Create content that search users want
This is SEO 101, right? But it isn’t always that obvious. Sometimes technical providers can get carried away with explaining the intricacies of what their product or service can do, without thinking about how a user would search for that information.
To succeed with semantic SEO, go back to your keyword research. Re-focus on the relevant search queries, and then match their intent with suitable content. This might mean reworking some existing content to support the relevant keywords or the creation of new content.
For example, the below content fulfills a multitude of search queries about a specific technology in a simple format.
Follow the longtail
When I’ve been working in technical niches, search queries are often very specific and have low to zero search volume in many of the common tools. But longtail keywords can still be really valuable if they are relevant to your users.
Don’t be afraid to create great content to satisfy “zero volume” phrases. Group these phrases together to create a detailed resource and as always, research the related entities and phrases to strengthen your content. Group a series of these very specific articles together for even more semantic SEO power. The search traffic you receive might not be huge, but it will be extremely relevant and qualified.
This recently published article based on a series of longtail, very low-volume queries has generated 18.3K impressions and 816 clicks in the last four months:
Reduce jargon and improve readability
Technical sites can often use a lot of industry jargon and long, winding sentences. Whilst technical subjects do tend to have higher reading difficulty scores, they shouldn’t be impossible to comprehend.
Very long and complex sentences make it difficult for Google to understand the links between words, reducing its confidence in the meaning of that sentence. It’s important to be precise, concise and clear no matter what the subject.
You can test this theory out by using Google’s NLP Tool.
For this complex sentence, there are a lot of dependency “hops” between words:
Google sees the most salient entities as “products” and “front”.
But I am talking about reaching an audience using advertising. So when we simplify the language as below:
You can instantly see the dependency “hops” reduce. And the overall result is a sentence that retains meaning, while the most salient entities “audience” and “advertising” have a much higher salience score showing they are understood as more important or central to the text:
Re-focus your content for clarity and readability. It’s absolutely possible to do this for technical subjects. Don’t try to baffle your readers with science or technology. Making things clear and succinct will help search engines and users alike process your language and extract the meaning.
If specific industry terms are necessary, define them where possible. A great definition will reinforce your expertise, and could also pick up other relevant queries and featured snippets.
Working on all of the above with a technical client across their blog content has yielded a 43.42% increase in organic traffic landing on blog pages, and a 24.92% increase in goal completions so far in 2022:
General tips for semantic SEO
No matter what type of website you work on, you can apply semantic principles to make your content perform better. Here are some general tips for semantic SEO success:
Use it as a competitive advantage
Don’t assume that you can’t rank well enough for competitive terms without a strong link profile. Links are only one part of the picture. If you are an expert in a field and can create great content on the topic, it’s certainly worth considering. Plan the content carefully, provide high-quality, unique insights and give it a shot. You might be surprised by the results.
I have helped clients to outrank really well-known brands with strong backlink profiles for competitive search terms by using a semantic approach. It required plenty of time and effort to research the topic, related phrases, and entities. Equal care and attention have gone into writing the copy and optimizing it at a later date, but allowing for attention to detail has really been worthwhile.
Don’t forget your link-building strategy
If you create quality content using semantic search it can rank well. High-ranking content can attract some valuable backlinks. A client of ours picked up one from the New York Times in this manner.
Don’t forget to include your semantic content in your link-building plans. Share it with others, and use social media and email marketing to get it noticed. If you’ve done a really great job for semantic search, you’ve probably nailed your content for users too. And this is the kind of content that other publications would choose to share or link to, which will only add to its success.
Always stay relevant to your topics and relationships
The way to build things up with this approach is by gaining ground in your topic area. Broader topics will have little use, so it’s best to stick to what you know.
Carry out a content audit to see what’s working for your website. Use this to define your areas of strength and relevance. When you have a clear focus, thoroughly research your topic area, and stick to it. Make sure irrelevant content doesn’t creep in – you must stick to your strategy.
I worked with a client who used to add broader blog content for interest and color, assuming that people didn’t want to know about their product area as much because it didn’t seem exciting. But after a content audit uncovered that their successful content was all very closely related to their product area, we refined their strategy in early 2022.
Now, most of their blog content is very tightly related to their products, and each new post ranks well and brings in qualified traffic. The site as a whole is seeing the benefit, and the visibility for blog content has been steadily increasing:
Give it time
Don’t try to optimize too early. Give your pieces at least three months before reviewing performance. Some really well-written pieces can rank in weeks. Others can take months. If you start to change them before you’ve really seen what they can do, you risk harming their performance.
Lots of the content myself and my team have worked on in the first half of 2022 has seen some really positive gains after the May 2022 Google Core Update, so you might even need to wait for algorithm updates to really know what’s paying off.
Here’s an example of a specific content piece that was published in January, and saw virtually no visibility for just over three months. Things started to take hold and really ramp up after the May core update (marker B) with no significant changes made to the content.
Whilst you shouldn’t start optimizing too soon after releasing a piece of content, the landscape keeps changing. You should always keep optimizing and improving your content once you’ve given it some time to get established.
This new, key sales page was added to a client’s site in December 2020. It took hold quite quickly, so was further optimized in March 2021, and visibility increased massively from then on.
The content quality was reviewed again when things began to dip in December 2021, which brought about recovery.
Create an optimization plan so you don’t forget to come back to key pages. Review important pages again if you see a dip in traffic, or if things change after a core update.
Balance quality with quantity
Whilst you need to keep a close eye on the quality of each page you publish, it’s more effective to focus on quality over perfection. Ten articles that are well optimized with a semantic SEO approach will be more powerful than one article that contains all the entities possible. This is because the relationships between pages are important too, and as mentioned earlier, a larger proportion of higher quality, helpful content on your site is beneficial to the whole site.
Whatever your niche, you can take a semantic approach
You can use semantic SEO to get results in any niche. Whilst the things you focus on will be different for each, the general principles always apply. Take time over your writing, consider the words you use and the relationships between them. Create clear, structured writing, and make sure you review and optimize as the search landscape changes. Enjoy creating content that’s topically relevant and you’ll see the results!