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What Does Semantic Search Mean for SEO?

  |  July 25, 2012   |  Comments

Both Bing and Google are trying to keep users on the search sites while answering search queries with semantic results.

It's tough not to notice the rather large, relatively new change on the first page of Google's search engine results, and the impact of that change will soon be impossible to ignore, too.

Considering Google is the number one search engine and most visited website in the world, most of us have already realized the change: semantic search results.

Google, which utilizes its unique intelligence index called the "Knowledge Graph" to produce its semantic search results, claims on its official blog that the feature "is a critical first step towards building the next generation of search, which taps into the collective intelligence of the web and understands the world a bit more like human brains do." And it probably is. But what does that mean for search engine optimization (SEO)?

First, you need to understand how the Knowledge Graph works and its intention. Google asserts that the Knowledge Graph, which is essentially a collection of databases (Wikipedia, Freebase, Google Local, Google Maps, and Google Shopping), enhances search in three main ways: finding the right thing, getting the best summary, and going deeper and more broadly. To do this, Google formed the Knowledge Graph to not just search keywords, but distinguish how certain combinations of words differ from other combinations containing common keywords, while also considering the human intent by each user.

This is Google's attempt to simplify search and bring results (or, better yet, answers) closer to the surface with fewer clicks. It's about "things, not strings," Google says.

Bing rolled out its own variation of semantic search recently, too, by partnering up with Encyclopedia Britannica to form its Britannica Online Encyclopedia Answers. It's slightly different from Google's version - Bing serves the semantic results directly into the organic results - but both are trying to simplify search.

While both versions remain works in progress, they're also well on their way to achieving what they were created to do: to keep users on the search sites while answering search queries.

Semantic results can be found by simply searching Google for a sports team, famous musician, or monument (among the 500 million-plus people, places, and things currently in the Knowledge Graph). The results on the top-right side of the page, utilizing the Knowledge Graph, offer quick bits of information, as well as the source from which the information is derived.

In the case of Bing, it's a bit different. The number of queries returned via semantic search is much fewer than those returned by Google but, with a more credible database (Britannica vs. Wikipedia) to pull answers from, Bing's semantic search may be an SEO proponent in the future of search.

In the image below, you can see that when searching for "Lincoln Memorial," Google's Knowledge Graph offers a map location, general information, and a picture of the monument, right on the SERP. To the left of that, we see the standard search engine results we've all grown accustomed to.


Bing's semantic results, which are scarcer than Google's, offer limited information and also serve several third-party links that will take you off the SERP for more information. This obviously goes against the idea that semantic search is mainly focused on keeping users on the search site, but also helps uphold the marketing value of SEO for sites delivering the searched information.

In addition to the smaller database of semantic search results and the way they are delivered (see the image below), it must also be highlighted that Bing's semantic results are rarely, if ever, at the top of the page. Google's semantic results are dominant on the top right of the page. Bing's are meshed in with the rest of the organic results, often blending in with the other results on the page if not for the small bits of information listed under the third-party links.


But without users clicking the standard results, websites should certainly see a decrease in visits through search. Obviously, semantic results showing up via Bing offer more chances for third-party sites to earn visits; Google offers less of a chance. So, optimized sites should continue to draw a high volume of visits through Bing.

There's still plenty that is unknown. How will semantic search affect page rank? It would make sense to rank pages used to serve semantic results higher than ones that do not, but who knows how algorithms will treat them. And will there be a way to optimize websites to capitalize on semantic search? There sure should be if search engines start using non-exclusive third-party sites to pull such information. Again, only time will tell.

Simply stated, this change does not seem to have been made with SEO in mind; most changes rarely are - they are primarily for the benefit of the user. But, while trying to improve usability by simplifying search, there will still be ways to optimize websites and ensure quality content is ranked higher than low-quality sites, something upon which Google and most search engines continue to pride themselves.

Crispin Sheridan


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Crispin Sheridan

Crispin Sheridan is the Senior Director, Global Search at SAP. As part of the digital team, he established and leads the search and testing practices at SAP. Crispin is responsible for paid, natural, and mobile search and all online testing. Search and testing at SAP are fully centralized and globally funded and run under a hybrid in-house and agency model.

Crispin has proven that search learnings and keyword insights work hand in hand with social media marketing and together can effectively drive B2B lead generation. Furthermore, the development of the SAP.com Test Lab has contributed significant success to SAP's digital marketing efforts.

A frequent guest speaker at conferences, including SES New York, San Francisco, Toronto, London, Delhi, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, Crispin was appointed to the SES Advisory Board in December 2009. He has also been a guest speaker at the e-Metrics Summit and ad:Tech, and is a member of Google's B2B Technology Council. You can follow him on Twitter at @crispinsheridan and read his monthly SEO column on ClickZ.

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