Technical SEO in a Semantic Search World

This is the deck I presented at a recent session “Advanced SEO” for the Digital Summit conference in Denver, called “Technical SEO in a Semantic Search World”.


This presentation was actually a really fun opportunity for me to talk about something that’s been on my mind – the changing role of SEO in the world of Semantic Search. I’ve been doing SEO professionally since 2003. In the past 3 years, I’ve seen more big, substantive changes to the field than I saw at any time in the 9 years that preceded that. We as SEOs, and as an industry, need to think about how our roles evolve and develop so that we can continue to add value to our organizations and clients, rather than selling them a Chinese menu of outdated optimization tactics.

On slide 2, I talked a bit about the state of the web at large. And the state of the web is that it’s a mess. The web is a heaving mass of unstructured data, that grows exponentially, is completely unsupervised, and constantly has new technologies stirred into the stew.

On slide 3 my point was that technical SEO represents our best toolset for elevating our sites out of the mess that is the web. But today, technical SEO is table stakes. In the game of organic search, technical SEO is simply the minimum amount you can ante to be in the game. 10 years ago, doing technical SEO meant you were guaranteed some solid first page rankings in return for your effort. Today, basic technical SEO will get you ranked somewhere in the top 100 for a few of your keywords. It’s that much more competitive.

And so, on slide 4, I talked about all of the things that we as SEOs have to keep our eyes on. SearchMetrics rankings correlations show all the factors that might be correlated with a single URL ranking. MOZ study data show the difference between page-level vs domain-level ranking factors, and whether they’re keyword dependent, or keyword independent. Add to that the Penguin and Panda algorithms, and keyword data disappearing into (not provided), and you get a sense for how busy the average workday of an SEO is.

I think that we as an industry are falling into the trap of paying attention to the tactical elements of SEO that we are familiar with, and not thinking about the forest from which all these trees are growing.

On slide 5 I discussed the new world of semantic search. Specifically, if you were to ask most any SEO today “What is semantic search?” you would be likely to hear something along the lines of:

  • Semantic search is about understanding the meaning of queries, and delivering results based on an understanding of the context in which the query was made
  • Semantic search is about “things not strings
  • Things in semantic search are “entities”
  • Entities are organized according to an ontology
  • Entities can have multiple properties based on their type
  • Entities can have relationships to other entities
  • Semantic search has its underpinnings in artificial intelligence (AI), deep learning, and natural language processing (NLP)

However, despite knowing all these things academically, they often haven’t filtered through to the extent that we have identified specific tactical strategies to address semantic search with technical SEO.  We may be fine talking about semantic search in the abstract, but we often default back to obsessing over character count in our title tags, because that is a more “knowable” field where we feel efficacious in our action.

All of that has to change.  So we know that semantic search changes things for our profession, but how?  Specifically, what does this change mean for us in our day-to-day jobs as we think about how to align our strategy and tactical delivery to the world of semantic search?

And honestly, I don’t think that semantic search requires a massive retrofit for us as SEOs.  Most of the stuff that you consider fundamental, technical SEO is still important, it just might be important for different reasons.  I.e., having descriptive, compelling title tags is still a best practice, because it allows you to put an effective marketing message in front of a human visitor right when they’re likely to be responsive to it.  In practical terms, a visitor may not see your title tag exactly as you wrote it. Google may be rewriting your title tags based on what it thinks is best for the visitor, or changing the visual formatting of the title.

So the fundamentals are still important, but they’re evolving.  You don’t have to throw out everything you know to adjust your SEO strategy to the semantic search model.  And there’s nothing more fundamental than the 3 pillars of on-page SEO:

  1. Information architecture
    • Depth of site architecture is one of the most important and overlooked aspects of site design
    • I provide steps so you can do your own analysis of your site’s IA
  2. Code
    • Organizations need to start thinking about how they’re going to integrate schema.org into developer workflows now
    • I provide examples for how you can insert correct schema.org syntax onto your pages to give your developers examples to code to
  3. Content
    • With semantic search, your content has never been more critical to your site’s ability to produce good ROI over the long term
    • Panda is just the most visible (and frightening) manifestation of this new understanding of the “quality” of your content
    • I provide steps for how perform an audit for thin content at scale.