Late last year, Google rolled out its new search algorithm, named Hummingbird, with the aim of giving users more precise results for their searches.
In the past, the Google search results page would be made up of a ranked order of approximate answers (to a user’s query) based on keywords. With Hummingbird though, Google has begun employing a relatively new concept known as semantic search, which tries to understand exactly what a user is looking for.
This means a huge game change for marketers working in SEO, which has traditionally focused, and relied, on keywords. The burning question for the new SEO is whether keywords actually even matter anymore.
What Is Semantic Search?
For years, Google has provided results based on a link between the user query and the keywords appearing on a website.
Links, anchor text and the keywords put into websites by copywriters provided all the signals for Google bots to determine the relationship between the query and the results.
It was the job of the person doing SEO to decide what type of things people would search for, and make sure that related keywords appeared in the copy of a website.
Another ranking factor was plenty of links pointing to the website. Google would see a link to a site as a kind of ‘vote’ for that site which would contribute to ranking it higher on a results page.
Semantic search, however, is completely different. ‘Semantic’, as it appears in the dictionary, refers to “the study of meaning, changes in meaning, and the principles that govern the relationship between sentences or meanings”.
So, semantic search means that Google is trying to precisely interpret the meaning (or intent) behind words in a search query. The Hummingbird algorithm relies on both the syntax of a query and natural language processing.
Google can now discern the relationships among words much more effectively than before. The words surrounding your keywords are now more precisely interpreted to uncover both context and user intent, delivering a much more relevant search result.
To illustrate how semantic search is different: if you were to type “how do I change my bicycle tyre at home?” into the old Google, you would have received results revolving around the keywords ‘bicycle’ and ‘home’.
So you may have gotten results for bicycle parts, bicycle shops and home bicycle assembly. However, with semantic search, Google takes into account the other words ‘how do I’ and ‘change’ to give a more accurate set of results actually related to changing a bicycle tyre at home.
What Does Hummingbird Mean For SEO, Though?
Well, the emphasis is now placed on user intent, so the old practice of squeezing as many related keywords as possible into the website copy is fast becoming redundant.
Google now better understands the relationship between words, sentences and linked synonyms, making the entire query more important than the individual words in the query.
It’s now essential that content be created for actual users. Content created merely for optimisation has no more relevance. Gone are the days of keyword rich texts which were often difficult to read. We need to forget terms like “keyword density” and rather focus on readability.
With this, content also needs to aim to answer or respond to a user’s query. Now we need to think about how our content will help the user, solve their problems and keep them interested.
Rather than think about keyword research, think of user intent. Keywords are still important, but they need to be thought of as the driving force behind user intent.
Google has an understanding of semantics now, just like we do. With this comes a better understanding of synonyms.
Content that uses keywords more naturally and employs synonyms will still rank highly on Google because it’s easier to understand and more natural than the old content that kept repeating the same phrases over and over and over and over again.
So Do Keywords Matter or Not?
Well… yes and no.
Yes, keywords do still matter, but no, they don’t matter in the same way that they used to. The days when the keyword was the king of SEO are over. Keywords should now rather be thought of as the tools that unlock user intent.