From Strings to Things – a new SEO for 2022
This post explains why the focus of SEO efforts in 2021 should be on Semantic SEO. Content based optimisation to supplement the keyword based optimisations we’ve been used to since the internet began.
These theories have been around SEO circles since 2013 when Matthew Brown presented “Strings to Things: Entities and SEO” at MozCon. 8 years later, the majority of SEOs are still obsessed with keywords. Why?
Well, keyword research is well established and very well documented. There are tools to measure keywords and their statistics. Also it does work. Keywords are not dead but they should be a part, not the whole of your SEO strategy.
What is Semantic SEO?
SEO is a response to the technology and algorithms used by Search Engines to index the web. There have been a number of key innovations as the sheer volume of content made full text analysis harder to achieve.
Ever since it became obvious that the scale of the data was increasing exponentially, data scientists at Google have been exploring better, more efficient and more useful ways of cataloguing the internet.
In the beginning there were keywords. Keywords were part of the metadata used to describe content and it was thought at the time to be a foolproof way of indexing websites. Not very much data to store compared to the full text.
The problem quickly became apparent though. Keywords were simply abused by website owners looking to propel their site to the top of the rankings. Because of this, it became impossible to equate keyword presence with quality of content.
If a Search Engine is to retain its popularity it needs to serve up useful content to its customers. That inevitably means quality assessment.
In an effort to assess quality, in 1995 Alta Vista pioneered full text search and were nearly overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the technology required to process it. To get a handle on that scale, the power consumed by Google Data Centres in the year 2017 was reportedly 2.26 million megawatt hours – the equivalent of 200,000 homes. [Powering a Google Search: The Facts and Figures – Direct Energy]
Altavista was the first search engine to support natural language processing. It pioneered Full Text Indexing and encouraged the use of Boolean operators in search terms (AND, OR, NOT) It supported images, video and audio search results. It was a revolutionary product in every sense.
What on earth happened? Well, AltaVista was the victim of terrible business strategy. It was never intended to be a Search Engine used by millions. It began life as a research project, a demonstration of the raw computing power of mainframe computers supplied by Digital.
Digital were acquired by Compaq in 1998, who tried to turn the Search Engine into a Portal to compete with Yahoo. Alta Vista was sold again in 1999 to CMGI and then sold off to Overture in 2003 after being overtaken by Google. Within four months of that acquisition Overture were themselves acquired by Yahoo and the technology absorbed into Yahoo Search. AltaVista was officially sunset in 2013.
The Google Knowledge Graph
By 2013 the data scientists at Google were already thinking about the relationships between things and whether that might not be a more intelligent way of assessing quality content. From there it was a short step to Entity based SEO.
The Google Knowledge Graph supplies results that include things, not just links. So if I search for “David Bowie” I see Questions, Movies, Albums, Songs, Stories. This is terrifically useful as if the intent of the search is not clear, the content delivered encourages the searcher to delve deeper into the things described by the term “David Bowie”.
Bing Snapshots and Semantic SEO
We can see that the boffins at Microsoft haven’t been left behind either. Their search returns are similarly organised to show the relationships between entities. Top Songs, News, Albums, Spouse etc.
So how do we as SEO’s adjust our strategies to play to the strengths of the models the Search engines are using?
Entities and SEO
The relationships between entities are not necessary explicit in terms of keywords. In order to pull together a set of results serving multiple search intents such as the David Bowie examples above, the algorithms need to be able to make assumptions based on what they know.
For example. David Bowie starred in “The Man Who Fell to Earth”. He released the seminal albums “Low”, “Heroes” and “The Lodger” during the same period. It’s unlikely that any online review of “The Man Who Fell to Earth” would have a link to “The Lodger”, but search engines need to make that link in order to build SERPs such as the ones from Google and Bing.
How is this done?
Vectors describe the overlaps between entities. In the examples here, there is an overlap between the entity “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and the entity “The Lodger”. The entity “David Bowie” is the vector.
To expand on this, if I were to write the ultimate website about David Bowie it would need to contain details of his film career and of his music. As well as a whole host of other material. Such a site would capture multiple search intents and would deservedly occupy the 1st position on Google.
If a film critic were to write a review of “The Man Who Fell to Earth” they would naturally include a link to the notional ultimate David Bowie website. But not to “The Lodger”. If a review were to be published of the Lodger, it would logically link to the main site, but not to the film review.
This is where it gets interesting. Google would know about all three entities even though they are not directly linked. Two are linked to one, but not to each other. It’s likely that all three would feature in the SERPs. And that at least two would feature for intentful searches such as “What is David Bowie’s best film?” and “Where did David Bowie record “The Lodger””.
What is even more interesting about this is that the entity “David Bowie” is effectively synonymous with the brand “David Bowie”. Which should tell marketers that Brand building is still a worthwhile activity.
The equivalent entity to a brand, at least so far as Google is concerned, is the GMB page. The GMB page is an excellent way to set up a reliable source of information for Search Engines to absorb.
Content Planning Using Semantic SEO
Our strategy involves setting a website up like a knowledge graph. The old fashioned way was to build a website, have landing pages for each service and generate enough social media to drive visitors to the landing pages and from there to making a buying decision.
The way we set up Helter Skelter Digital is subtly different. We have Landing Pages for each pillar of the business but we also have content that is designed to establish Helter Skelter Digital as authoritative in each pillar of the business. Not just for Search Engines, we do this primarily for human consumption on the basis that if a reader learns something new from us, they are highly likely to come back.
We are a very new site – three months and counting. We have already several pages ranking in the top twenty results for certain relevant terms on Google. That’s without leveraging any localisation data.
Be aware that this strategy is a long term strategy. It involves creating a large amount of content and supporting that content actively in consumable chunks and feeder posts on social media. the benefit is the strategy itself supporting. Keep your content fresh and you will maintain rankings much more effectively than if you were to use keywords and backlinks alone.
The content defining our position in each pillar of the business is called “Pillar Content”. These posts are generally a minimum of 2000 words long and are designed to deliver something above and beyond the reach of the posts occupying the front page listings in the SERPs. They manifest on our website as a Knowledge Base and are supported and linked to by other posts addressing specific search intent.
Supporting Posts and other Content
The relationship of a supporting post to a pillar post is bi directional. So if this post = “A Semantic SEO Strategy for 2022” is the pillar post, a supporting post might be called “Essential Software for Managing Internal Linking in WordPress”
The supporting post satisfies a very specific intent but also leads to the Pillar Post. In so doing it will benefit from the deeper level of information supplied in the pillar post and from any favourable ranking the pillar post achieves.
It is also worth including other types of media and platforms in this section. Videos, Social Media posts, Instagram, TikTok, all of these media types and platforms drive traffic effectively and some will count as entities for Search Engines to relate.
If each pillar post represents a pillar of our business, it also represents a topic. Each topic can be addressed in supporting posts aimed at a specific search intent. This method is a great way to avoid keyword cannibalisation. Despite everything I’ve talked about here, Keywords still matter!
Key to this strategy being effective is to get the supporting posts to rank in their own right. To do this you need to play to the Search Intent.
Writing Content Leveraging Semantic SEO
Keyword Research is still a good place to start. The usual tools still apply. Google, KWFinder, Keyword Tool or if you’re an agency, Semrush, Moz or Ahrefs.
Use the keyword research phase to determine a broad term describing the topic and a specific term describing the answer to a search. Tease out questions that people ask about the topic and don’t just pick one keyword, look at all of the keywords and where appropriate use them as phrases within the text. You can use the questions to make sure you are addressing popular searches.
Once you have a broad term ask yourself the following questions about a potential post.
For example, if you are a Photographer, your broad term might be Photographer but an extended term might be Fine Art Photographer. The extended term narrows the search and addresses a more specific question.
For questions, Answer the Public is an excellent and free resource.
Where to Find Semantic Information in Google
You can learn a lot about semantic relationships even for things that don’t necessarily have a well defined Entity or Brand by looking at the Google Search results.
Let’s see how this works.
I input the term “Landscape Photographer” and my results are person oriented. Google thinks I want to know about people so the SERP contains a list of the best Landscape Photographers.
It also shows me some associated entities – People also Ask. Tells me Cost is a topic of interest. Further down the page I can see Landscape Photography: A Beginners Guide and Landscape Photographer Salary in the Related Searches box. This tells me that Education and Earning Power are of interest in this topic.
Let’s see what happens if I change the search slightly. Let’s try Landscape Photography instead.
Well, this is much better. I can see there is potential in this topic to cover Instructional Material, Theory, Technique, Equipment. Add this to the original Search and I probably have enough content ideas to create a Pillar Post and several supporting items.
Search Intent: Depth and Breadth
Going a little deeper into Intent. Understanding Search Intent enables you to align your content to things that people are actually searching for. It sounds obvious, but so many people don’t do it. Nine time out of ten, if a well written article is not ranking, it is not aligned to a particular intent.
The majority of searches fall into four categories.
- Informational – What is Landscape Photography?
- Commercial – Landscape Photography Gallery
- Navigational – Landscape Photographers on Twitter
- Transactional – Professional Landscape Photographer Near Me
For marketers, these also map onto the sales journey – Awareness, Consideration, Purchase
The point of mapping content to search intent is that it will add depth and breadth to your website. At the Informational Stage you are giving away useful content that answers an idle question. In Commercial you are providing hard information that will benefit both galleries and searchers (in the example of a Landscape Photography Search). Similarly with Navigational searches although they are more likely to have entered the Consideration stage. They don’t just want to know what Landscape Photography is about, they want to see examples. They’re either going to buy some art or learn how to create it!
Where to Next with SEO?
We advocate a hybrid SEO strategy. We use our understanding of the semantic web to devise content plans that contribute over time to a site’s DA. The goal is to eventually create a body of work that is coherent and considerable. So that our brand is consistently visible where we need it to be visible.
To that end, once we have defined our content silos we set about filling them with content over time. We do not recommend dumping a fully populated website of fifty articles on Google at one time.
We’ve been talking about Transmedia for a very long time. Over ten years. It was obvious when the first hyperlinked apps emerged that the internet could potentially support storytelling across different platforms and media.
We see this done masterfully by a few very well resourced brands. Red Bull are brilliant at it. The modern audience is predisposed to browsing multiple media, hopping from Facebook to Twitter, Google to Netflix to Amazon in the space of minutes.
With Search Engine’s focus on the semantic web, the relationships between platforms and media are much easier to recognise than they were. This represents an opportunity to address a new audience in a more sophisticated fashion, encouraging greater engagement, generating new leads and more sales.
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