Semantic Search: What It Is & Why It Matters for SEO Today

Since its beginning, SEO has changed quite a bit. Back in 2010, it used to be all about fitting in a lot of backlinks and keywords. Since then, the focus has shifted to other things. Most recently, in 2021, the focus landed on understanding intent and behavior, and the semantics behind them. Search engine understanding has evolved, and SEO had to change in response. Now, you have to fully understand your keywords, and provide information that contextualizes it. Today AZ Citation Services will be talking about what Semantic Search actually is, and why it is important for SEO.

What is Semantic Search?

To answer simply, Semantic Search describes a search engine’s capability of generating the most accurate SERP (Search Engine Result Pages) by understanding searcher intent, context, query, and the relationships between words. So if, for example, you searched “what is the world’s spiciest food?” And then followed up that search with “how spicy is it?” Previously, Google would search for pages with the keyword “how spicy is it”, as it wouldn’t understand the context. Now, search engines can understand the context and would give you results based on that. Additionally, SS allows search engines to distinguish entities (places, people, and things) based on various factors, which are: spelling variations, user location, user search history, and global search history. This led to a lot of changes in SEO, which makes you wonder: what is the future of SEO?

Samsung tablet on table to find out what Semantic Search is
Understanding what SS is very important for the future of SEO.

History of Semantic Search

Arguably, the history of SS begins with Google’s Hummingbird update, launched in 2013. This was the first step Google took to help their search engine better match the meaning better, rather than matching only a few words. Essentially, this means that pages that match context and intent rate higher than pages that repeat context-less words. In 2015, Google launched RankBrain. This is a machine learning system that serves both as a smart query analysis AI and a ranking factor. It fills the same purpose as Hummingbird, with the main difference being that RankBrain is constantly learning and looking for similarities between pages that users find valuable. This leads to RankBrain considering certain pages “good responses” to user queries even if they don’t contain exact words from the question itself.


BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representation from Transformers) was introduced by Google in 2019. This is considered to be the greatest leap forward for the past 5 years, and one of the biggest leaps in search engine histories. The focus of BERT is to further understand the conversation search context and understand user intent.  By doing this, BERT makes it much easier for users to find accurate and useful information. It gave marketers the ability to work a lot more with long-tail queries, and phrases with more than 3 words while ensuring that the content actually answers the users’ questions. This caused a large shift in focus for writers because they now had to write clear and concise content for humans and make it easy to understand. This caused some trouble with selling SEO services because everyone had to adjust their approach to making content after the introduction of BERT.

Person holding tablet displaying graphs
The introduction of BERT led to a major shift in focus when writing SEO content, and has caused a very big change in how content is written.

The impact of voice search

The main reason why SS became important is the introduction of voice search. With mobile voice commands becoming more and more popular, a lot of users, especially in high-income households, have started relying on voice commands rather than traditional searches. Optimizing your content for voice search, for intent-based searches, as you have to immediately get to the point and keep the content a lot more conversational. So, what can you do about this? To put it simply, your content has to be much more clear and concise and immediately answers a question at the top of the page before delving into more specific details. Also, using structured data helps search engines understand the context and content.

Focus shifts

The biggest change which came with SS was the focus shift from keywords to topics. It is among the common issues wrecking local SEO. Keywords can no longer be used to create content around them. You have to, instead, focus on thinking about broader topics for the niche that you can cover in-depth. For example, making a lot of short and varied pages with their own topics isn’t a good idea anymore. You should, instead, consider making “ultimate guides” with more valuable and comprehensive resources that readers will find helpful.

Person using laptop
Understanding what to focus on is very important when optimizing content.

User experience becomes the priority

In the age of SS, user satisfaction becomes what guides SEO efforts. Google cares the most about user satisfaction. As such, they constantly fine-tuning their algorithm to understand user intent much better and satisfy the needs of users. Because of this approach, SEO professionals have to adapt and always consider the user experience as well. So, to make your SEO more effective, you should try to improve page speed as much as possible. Additionally, make sure your mobile site is well optimized. Google now prioritizes mobile sites for indexing, so it’s important to have them optimized. Finally, constantly monitor metrics such as session duration and bounce rate. Also, if you can find anything which could be improved, run some A/B experiments and see if you can boost engagements.

Semantic Search: What it is & why it is important in today’s SEO

Knowing how Google understands user intent in intelligent ways is vital for proper SEO. SS should always be on your mind when creating content today. Because of changes brought with SS, old SEO tricks and mediocre content is no longer enough, especially considering that search engines are getting better and better at understanding context, user intent, and relationships between concepts. You have to try and strike a balance between user intent, high-quality content, and optimization for ranking and indexing. We hope you found this explanation of what Semantic Search is and why it matters for SEO today.

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