Using Semantic Markup with WordPress to Improve Your Search Results

Using Semantic Markup with WordPress to Improve Your Search Results

Search engines are always modifying how they do things. In just a few years’ time, we’ve gone through a strictly keyword-based search algorithm to a semantic search algorithm that prioritizes context over exact keyword matches.

The days of keyword stuffing are long behind us now and if you want to make sure your website ranks as high as possible and gets as many clicks as possible, you need to think about the semantics.

Again, it’s all about context. And if you want your WordPress site to play nice with all that Google offers now, you have to make some modifications to how your site is presented to the search engine. You also need to think a little bit differently about how you approach content creation.

We’ll dive into all of those fantastic details in just a moment, but I think it’s important to get an all-important definition out of the way first. 

What is Semantic Search?

Semantic search actually refers to a process performed by search engines that uses multiple resources to produce search results. It’s basically pulling from all different databases to compile the best, most relevant results list it can at any given time.

But we’re about technical accuracy around these parts, so this is what semantic search means according to Techopedia:

Semantic search is a data searching technique in a which a search query aims to not only find keywords, but to determine the intent and contextual meaning of the the words a person is using for search.

By considering a multitude of sources when delivering search results, semantic search goes a step further than traditional keyword-based searches and even delves deeper than a dictionary definition of the words being searched. According to Croud.com, it accomplishes this by trying to understand the “intent of a searcher’s query within a specific context.” Search engines now do this by learning from what people have searched for previously to create links between individual searches.

For example, if you searched for “primary election results” in the U.S. yesterday but searched for just the word “primary” today, Google will likely deliver the election results in the second case as well because it knows what you meant.

No, semantic search is not the dawn of the robot uprising. It is not artificial intelligence. But it does bear a resemblance to A.I. in how the algorithm learns and adapts the results delivered to individual users based on said individual user’s previous searches.

Need more examples?

We see a form of semantic search being served up all the time in Google’s use of autocorrect when you misspell a search query:

semantic-search-autocorrect

We had that function a long time before full-fledged semantic search rolled out with the Google Hummingbird update back in 2013. After that update, we started to see much more intuitive search functions like the ability to ask Google a question in conversational language:

california-capital
Conversational queries work in Google thanks to semantic search.
I followed up "What is the capital of California?" with "When did it become a state?"
I followed up “What is the capital of California?” with “When did it become a state?”

And the ability for provide contextual results based on a previous query is particularly impressive when you use Google Now on your mobile device to voice search, which is pictured to the right here:

We could spend the day on more examples, truly, but I think these were enough to get my point across for now.

But, How Does it Work?

Ever since the Hummingbird update, Google now pays attention to what entire phrases and sentences mean rather than the meaning of each individual word that makes up the phrase or sentence. It’s all about context here, people. And semantic search wouldn’t exist without the ability of these algorithms to deduce meaning from conversationally-phrased queries. So, the resulting SERPS are no longer produced based on exact keyword matches. Instead, they’re based on—you guessed it—semantics.

Techopedia breaks it down further:

Semantic search works on the principles of language semantics. Unlike typical search algorithms, semantic search is based on the context, substance, intent and concept of the searched phrase. Semantic search also incorporates location, synonyms of a term, current trends, word variations and other natural language elements as part of the search. Semantic search concepts are derived from various search algorithms and methodologies, including keyword-to-concept mapping, graph patterns and fuzzy logic.

So this is what we know about how Google delivers its search results semantically. And honestly, we don’t know all that much. The company is (understandably) quite tight-lipped regarding the specifics of its algorithm, so while we know that your previous searches do affect what results are provided to you, there very well may be a ton of other factors in play that we simply know next to nothing about.

But we do know that Google learns an awful lot for each search every user makes. So, the results that are provided to you don’t just reflect your search habits (though they do weigh heavily) they also likely reflect the search habits of all of the other people who have used Google in the past, what links they clicked on, what they search for before a particular query, what they searched for after a query, as well as other user-behavior specifics.

Like I said, a ton of factors go into delivering search results, many of which we just don’t know. But just because we don’t know everything about how semantic search works, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything in our power to optimize for it. Because it is clearly in play. I mean, the fact that you’re presented with a different set of search results when you’re logged into Google than when you’re logged out speaks volumes to this idea.

Why You Need to Optimize for Semantic Search Now

Since the launch of Google Hummingbird a few years ago, there’s been an upswing in prioritizing semantic search optimization. Of course, not everyone jumped on board right away. And the notion that “old habits die hard,” is strong when there are still some in the SEO community shilling services that involve loading content up with keywords.

Basically, there’s no better time than the present to hop on the semantic search bandwagon. First, it appears to be here to stay. And second, making a little bit of extra effort on optimization in this space ensures your websites perform better.

Before we move forward to discuss the “how-to” aspects of semantic search, let’s first talk about the concrete benefits you can expect to experience.

Optimizing for semantic search:

1. Improves search engine rank

While former Google software engineer Matt Cutts has said in the past that adding semantic data to your site (which we’ll cover in just a bit) won’t improve your search engine rank, it does make sure your content is visible to the widest contextually relevant audience possible. And it ensures people who are genuinely looking for your content, can find it.

2. Improves click-through rate

The beauty of semantic search optimization is it ensures links to your website appear in search results in the most visually appealing way possible. A traditional search result looks like this:

A standard search result.
A standard search result.

One that has been optimized looks like this:

A search result optimized with a rich snippet.
A search result optimized with a rich snippet.

It’s called a rich snippet and while they’ve gone through a few incarnations already (Google Authorship, anyone?) they’re still in heavy use and can include things like:

  • Site breadcrumbs
  • Images
  • Star ratings

This semantic data also ensures your content is presented exactly as you intend on social media. Social sites like Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn have their own semantic data structures that you can fill in and typically include fields for a title, meta description, keywords, and an image. This means if someone decides to share your blog post on Twitter, the precise text, link, and accompanying image data will be included automatically, effectively giving you control over how your branded materials appeal across the entire Internet. Pretty cool, huh?

3. Improves content accessibility

A wonderful benefit of optimizing for semantic search is your site automatically becomes a little bit more accessible. Your site’s post and page titles will be clear and concise, as will their descriptions. This means disabled users will be able to get access to your site a little bit more easily on screen readers. Note: This by no means indicates that’s where your accessibility efforts should end. In fact, we wrote a whole post about how to make your site accessible, which you should probably read. Semantic optimization is just a great first step toward that end. 

4. It considers user intent

As we’ve already discussed, optimizing for semantic search means thinking about what your end users want by default. And while you could have the cleanest semantic data in town, a lack of contextually relevant content could hurt you. On the flip side, thinking about semantic search and user intent during the content creation process means you’ll be publishing inherently more useful and relevant content for your readers.

How to Better Optimize for Semantic Search in WordPress

Now that we’ve gone into some detail about what semantic search is, how it works, and why you should care about it, we can begin to focus on the ways in which you can optimize your WordPress site accordingly. I’ve broken it down into a few key steps.

Step 1: Think about the end user.

Truly, the bulk of semantic search optimization is about user intent. We talked about it in the benefits section, above. But from an actionable standpoint, it’s important to take some time to think about what your target audience wants. Think about what your ideal visitor or customer is hoping to find when they land on your site.

Then, back that up a step more and consider what they would search for to see your site in the search results. It might take a bit of mental gymnastics to approach it from this way but the end result will be a website that speaks more directly to your visitors because it was created with an active recognition of what people want and expect. The whole idea behind semantic search is figuring out user intent and delivering search results and content that fulfills those expectations.

Step 2: Create precise and clear content.

According to Neil Patel in an article at CrazyEgg, optimizing for semantic search means making doubly sure every bit of content you write is laser focused.

“Search engines are tailored to identify the meaning of your content,” Patel says. So, that means every article you create should have a pinpoint focus, stay on message, and offer clear takeaways for visitors.

Remember: the more relevant information you include in each piece of content, the more likely it is your site will rank for a wide range of search terms, phrases, and conversational queries. 

Step 3: Get the SEO basics under control

All of this talk about semantic search and contextual results might make you think that keywords don’t matter at all anymore and that’s just not true. Keywords still matter just not as much as they used to and the emphasis on exact matches is greatly reduced. Still, optimizing your content for keyword phrases can be helpful for narrowing the focus of your content so it’s more helpful to your readers.

And you’ll want to be certain to maximize the effect of each page or post by filling in all relevant SEO information when you can. There are plenty of plugins that can help you check this task off your to-do list with ease, but we tend to like All-In-One SEO Pack around here.

Step 4: Prioritize the long-tail.

Another thing that falls right in line with getting a handle on the SEO basics is understanding and implementing long tail keyword use. Okay, so I know I just said that keywords don’t matter as much as they used to, but long tail keywords can be immensely helpful. Why? Well, because they’re derived from searches people make that are related to your primary keywords. By their very nature, they are contextual. Long tail keyword optimization is actually one of the first ways SEOs got involved in this whole semantic search thing.

And as a website owner, you can use long tail keywords to guarantee search engines know precisely what you’re talking about. Long tail phrases give your content context and show the search engines the relationships between different ideas presented within it.

So, if you have a website that’s all about dance styles, it would be helpful to have the names of different dances included throughout your content. By including the words “The Robot” in your content, Google will know contextually that you’re talking about the dance with this name, not actual robots. The best part of long tail keyword optimization is that you don’t even have to think that hard about it. Often, just including phrases that people might search for naturally when looking up your site’s subject matter will suffice.

Step 5: Use schema markup.

Schema markup is also known as structured data markup and it basically gives search engines more information so it can show your site in the most semantically-derived search results as possible.

You have to add semantic data to your website if you want to get the benefits of semantic search. This might seem intimidating at first, but not to worry: you don’t have to redo your whole website. In fact, there are many plugins available that help you speed through some of the steps outlined below. We’ll talk more about those in the next section.

schema-creator-by-raven

In the meantime, however, it’s important to call out one plugin in particular that can help speed you through the required steps of adding schema markup to your site. It’s called Schema Creator by Raven.

This plugin is easy to use and adds a form on your site that automatically inserts Schema.org microdata into your posts or pages. You can embed the data you create using a shortcode plus you can edit data after you’ve inserted it, customize styles, and it adds a Schema Creator icon in the visual editor for your convenience. All you have to do is pick what type of schema you want to create: person, product, event, organization, movie, book, or review. Then input the appropriate info and you’ll be off and running.

You can also use the Structured Data Tool within Google Webmaster Tools to create schema markup for your WordPress site. This might be a better solution if you envision having a lot of content.

A Few Helpful Plugins

If attempting to optimize your site for semantic search on your own sounds too intimidating, there is a good selection of plugins out there that can assist you in the effort.

  • All-in-One SEO Pack

    I already mentioned this plugin above, but it deserves it’s own little breakdown here. All-in-One SEO Pack is a full search engine optimization plugin that makes it easy to complete all of those fiddly SEO-related tasks. It includes support for XML sitemaps and Google Analytics and it helps you to create advanced canonical URLs, optimize custom post types, automatically generate meta tags, set custom titles and meta descriptions, and more.

    It’s also compatible with many other plugins, helps eliminate duplicate content, includes Nonce Security, and has been translated into 57 languages. All-in-One SEO Pack is free but a Pro version does exist that includes a feature manager, video XML sitemap support, control over category, tag, and custom taxonomy SEO, WooCommerce support, and more for $79 per year.

    Interested in All-in-One SEO Pack?

  • Semantic Tags

    The Semantic Tags plugin focuses exclusively on the semantic side of things by making it easier for you to optimize how Google understands the relationships between your content. Once installed, this plugin lets you edit the tags on your posts and pages by adding markup to them. This lets you create semantic tags that have deeper meaning than a traditional tag you’d place on a post or page.

    You can even link to other resources within these tags to provide greater context for your content. This plugin is free.

    Interested in Semantic Tags?

  • WordLift

    Another plugin worth considering is WordLift, which makes it easy to organize your posts and pages. Basically, it lets you add “facts” to each post and page in the form of text and media to help improve the structure of your site. It publishes your content in Linked Open Data form to make it more crawlable by search engines.

    The plugin adds semantic annotations to your content and helps improve your workflow by making suggestions for information, images, and links. In fact, it suggests free-to-use photos and illustrations to add to your content and helps to organize your content contextually for a more intuitive browsing experience and ensures a wider and more relevant audience will be able to find your site.

    WordLift is free.

  • Kaimbo

    Kaimbo is a semantic search solution for WordPress that goes beyond typical keyword optimization and lets you optimize your content contextually. It highlights keywords and concepts, includes an advanced keyword search function for your site visitors, and performs instant re-crawling to ensure the updated form of your site is indexed automatically.

    This plugin also indexes PDFs to make them searchable, includes a vast knowledge base that allows for understanding of synonyms and related concepts on searches, smart auto-completion on searches, concept highlighting, as well as  a knowledge base editor that lets you customize an established set of background information for better indexing and browsing. Other features include search statistics and one-click installation.

    Kaimbo is free.

  • Add Meta Tags

    The last plugin I’ll mention here is Add Meta Tags. This plugin makes it easy to optimize your site by automatically creating meta data about your content for easier sharing on social media and better indexing in search engines. It generates meta title, description, and keyword info, as well as Open Graph, Schema.org, JSON+LD, and Twitter Cards.

    You can also customize the title and meta description information created so you have better control over your site’s presentation. You can also customize the location info on each post thanks to a hreflang link. It’s also compatible with WPML and it supports internal caching.

    Add Meta Tags is free.

    Interested in Add Meta Tags?

Wrapping Up

Semantic search might sound like the most intimidating thing to implement at first but I hope after reading this article you have a stronger understanding of what it means, how it works, and how you can better optimize your WordPress site accordingly. At the end of the day, your efforts will be rewarded in the form of a website that’s easier for your target audience to find. And that’s definitely a good thing, right?

Have you made efforts to optimize for semantic search? Did I miss anything here? Let us know in the comments below.