Semantic search attempts to improve accuracy of search engine results by understanding the user intent and context of the terms as they are used in a query (1). Unlike traditional algorithms, which depend on people sorting through pages that are tagged with related keywords, semantic search seeks to understand the query on a deeper level and deliver the exact information the user is looking for.

Widely regarded as the next step in the evolution of search engines, semantic search has increasingly become a focus for Google and Bing, prompting intense discussion in the marketing community about the business implications.

Why do we need it?

There are several forces driving the adoption of semantic considerations into search engine ranking algorithms. One factor is the proliferation of devices people use to access information, which has inspired new ways for users to input queries, like voice activated searches including Siri, Sherpa, Cortana and Google Now (1).

Another factor is the ever-increasing quantity of content that goes online every day. As more content becomes available on every subject, searchers no longer have to query using pivotal root keywords, like "running shoes," any more. Now, users are accustomed to using long tail keyword searches or several words strung together which increase the specificity of the search. Instead of searching for "running shoes," a user may search "what are the best running shoes for arched feet?" As queries have become more specific, search engines have moved beyond simply matching keywords to them. Words are no longer a series of letters organized in a specific order. Now, words are linked to concepts, which are increasingly important to determine relevance.

Google's Hummingbird algorithm update

In 2013, Google announced an update to its algorithm that became popularly known as Hummingbird. Unlike previous popular Google updates, like Panda and Penguin, Hummingbird focused less on ranking tactics used by website owners and more on the meaning behind user queries. Google shifted its focus to the understanding phase of searches, paying more attention to the context in which the query is entered and how these concepts relate to each other in relevant documents.

How does it work?

Semantic search takes various factors into consideration before returning results, focusing mainly on context and user intent. When establishing context, Google takes into account factors like the user's search history, location, global searches, previously stored data, spelling variations, synonyms, and concept matching.

Semantic search is powered by a process called word-sense disambiguation. When a word can have several meanings, like penguin, a semantic system evaluates the meanings of other words in the query. By determining the meaning of each word, it disambiguates the other words until plausibility is achieved for the entire sentence or phrase (1). All of this internal processing knowledge is contained within the semantic network and organized on a conceptual basis.

If a search gives no cues about context or intent, Google will suggest ways the user can refine his or her search to improve context and results. Once Google understands the intent, it often will offer an excerpt from its Knowledge Base, which is a snippet of information from a highly trusted resource.

Implications for marketing

As search engines continue to mature and their understanding of concepts deepen, businesses will need to think carefully about the content they create and how it is presented to users. Companies should consider how other reputable sources cover the chosen topic and related words that co-occur around that topic. For instance, the term "shopping cart" is closely related to the topic of ecommerce, and if you want the context of your content to be easily recognized by search engines, you should consider including some of those related terms. Businesses should also consider including synonyms in their content creation and linking strategies.

Understanding how search engines are adapting to semantics offers business owners insight into the changing behaviors of consumers and how they research products and services. Creating content that's attentive to context and user intent will go a long way toward increasing your business presence online.

1. What is semantic search and why should I care?

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