Content is one of the most important influencers of search engine rankings. A few years back, if you wanted to gain rankings organically, all you needed to do was ensure your website content was rich and informative, and that every page used variations of the specific terms you wanted it to rank for.
However, with new updates to Google’s search algorithm – Hummingbird, RankBrain, and the like – you also need to understand semantic and thematic entity-based relationships within your content, in order to make sure your website is viewed favorably by the bots. According to Searchmetrics’ Search Ranking Factors & Rank Correlations 2015 report, relevant, structured content that has semantic text that caters to intent will serve to improve your website rankings far more than keyword-stuffed descriptions. Surprise, surprise!
Semantic Ranking Factors
Search engines are getting more clever at understanding users’ intent at the moment of searching as opposed to simply running keywords against a database of web pages. The way they’re doing this (with help from AI systems) is by analyzing the semantics, i.e. the meaning and context of the searcher’s query.
To illustrate, examine the screenshot below. Notice how Google understand that the search term is a definable phrase (and it goes ahead and serves up the definition):
For search engines to understand what your website is about, you need to work hard to establish a semantic relationship between all your pages. In other words, pages that are topically related to each other should be in the same navigational section and hierarchical level on the site, as well as link to each other, as opposed to those that have little in common.
For instance, if you are selling lifestyle medications online, you can’t link to your weight loss pages from hair loss pages, because search engines understand that they are irrelevant to each other. However, all these pages must be inter-linked to relevant pages within the website to establish a semantic connect. If you fail to establish this connect, the bots won’t be able to accurately assess what your website is about and this will have a negative impact on your website.
How do you do that?
One of the best ways to create semantic relationships for your web pages is to create super-sets and subsets for these pages. So all your weight loss medications, health articles, advice and tips, etc. should be clustered in one thematic super-set, and similar categories related to hair loss in another thematic set. It doesn’t matter if both your super-sets are not related, but be extra careful to make sure your subset theme is related to its super-set theme and they are internally linked with each other.
Thematic Navigation and Structure
Consider this site that sells healthcare products. The super-sets in their sitemap are neatly categorized according to various health conditions. Although the divisions aren’t for the most part semantically related, they all fall under one thematic topic, i.e. healthcare.
If you click on any super-set, let’s say Weight Loss, you will be taken to a page which is further neatly divided into informational pages and available medications. So it is reasonable to suppose that even if appetite suppressants are not related to acne or asthma, search engines will understand the theme of the website and the relationship between subsets, given a clear informational and navigational hierarchy.
Building the Base for Content
Semantics help eCommerce sites go broad with their theme by establishing relationships and interlinking diverse topics that are related to the theme in question. Here are a couple of examples off-hand:
Shoes: women’s footwear, flats, D’Orsay, moccasin, orthopedic foot health, sneakers
Furniture: bedroom, lounge, kitchen, wooden, metal, sofa
But-off hand doesn’t cut it and you need to find all your relevant keywords down to the last one. There are several ways to do this and make your content more semantically relevant for search engines in the process.
In parallel with your content creation – especially the text – you must test the semantic relevance of all terms and their variations with Boolean syntax, term weighting, fuzzy logic and proximity matching.
And then you begin to tie in your content with your SEO and other digital marketing initiatives.
Semantic SEO and Content Planning for Large-Scale eCommerce
I remember there was a time when eCommerce websites had multiple “SEO pages” (designed to look like informative pages) for each product, with keywords repeated over and over again. Thankfully, we have come off that phase and content marketers’ lives have changed for better.
Let’s go with the home furnishing theme; let’s say someone Googles ‘dining chairs’. In addition to the exact query match, Google will consider ‘round dining tables’, ‘teak chair’, etc. as relevant keywords and throw up websites with related entities in the results.
Your first step should be making lists of your related content using the semantic closeness approach. So, if you’re a home décor and furniture website, your basic keyword list (and therefore, menus) should look like
Dining Room > Dining Tables, Dining Chairs, Cupboards, Sideboards, Bar Counter, Stools
Your secondary list should be more advanced and have semantically broader choices like
Dining Room > Oak Dining Tables, Teak Dining Tables, Square Dining Tables, Round Dining Tables, Oak Dining Chairs, Teak Dining Chairs
For instance, the word Knoll may appear multiple times on their website but for search engines, the word inherently means nothing. However, with Schema.org Knoll can create a semantic association between their brand name and the key phrase ‘luxury furniture brand’, so that search engines associate “Knoll” as an entity that is associated with “luxury furniture” and alter their search results accordingly.
Now let’s take another example.
I Googled ‘home furnishings’ and clicked on Ikea website, partly because I recognized the brand as opposed to the SERP listing, which was like this:
So while they’ve used the exact term in their title and meta description (and even meta keywords!), I couldn’t find it even once on the page.
Now, you might argue that Ikea is a furniture brand and Google might be ranking them more on the basis of their industry credibility. So, I wanted to see if I could find a site with a broader focus – maybe an eCommerce major selling everything under the sun – in the search results for an industry-specific query. I queried ‘desk’ and stumbled on Walmart:
This leads to a category page called “Office Furniture” that simply lists (in image form) sub-categories like desks, chairs, file cabinets and bookcases, as well as cross-sell sections. Note that this category is a super-set as well as a subset. The fact that it doesn’t show a collection of desks (the actual search term), but still ranks as the first non-industry site for the query speaks volumes of the semantic SEO and content optimization that Walmart has carried out.
Suffice it to say that if the theme of your web page matches the meaning of the query and the intent of the user, and the words used in your content are semantically relevant, your job is half done!
Semantic SEO and Content Planning for Single Product Websites
If you are a small business owner or a startup with a flagship app or service, and don’t have the time or resources to go deep into SEO and ranking, fret not. We have assurance from Google that single page websites can work well for SEO purposes too. If you want a small single-page website, here are some tips that can help you create a SEO-friendly website:
Separate your content into distinct sections like product benefits, customer testimonials, case studies, contact form, etc.
Unlike traditional websites, single-page websites can get away with multiple H1 tags, so make good use of that liberty.
Keep your content fresh and relevant to one overarching theme. Considering you don’t have many pages of content, this shouldn’t be a time consuming task.
There are a couple of good freemium eCommerce platforms, such as PrestaShop and Spaces, which allow you to create a full online storefront with single page websites, divvied up into UX-focused sections like headings, product category, contact form, as well as plugins to take care of social sharing (like AddShoppers’ Sharing Buttons and Purchase Sharing) in addition to the regular shopping cart functions. For small businesses with only a few products, this means you can start selling in a short time without relying on development and web hosting expertise.
Over to You
Not using traditional SEO “tactics” should no longer take away your chance to achieve good rankings and visibility, provided you come up with and stick to a good thematic and semantic content strategy. In a nutshell,
Research what people in your industry are looking for -- pay special regard to understanding the intent behind different search queries.
Take a deep look at your products, their uses and benefits. Anticipate searcher intent and create matching, contextual descriptions accordingly.
Pay special attention to navigation and flow of information on your site. Create and link to topically relevant pages from the appropriate sections and menus, with the correct anchor text.
I hope you can use the ideas discussed in this article to create content that appeals to potential customers all along your marketing funnel, and make your website more user-friendly as well as SEO-friendly in the process. If you’d like to share any content strategies that have worked for you, please get the conversation started in the comments!
About the author
Tracy Vides is a digital marketing strategist who works with small businesses and startups to help improve their content, SEO, and social presence. Tracy is also a prolific writer – her posts on ecommerce, social media, and conversion are regularly featured on tech blogs across the web. Follow her on Twitter: @tracyvides.