Understanding Semantic Search and Google Hummingbird

In the past, if you wanted strong on page ranking factors, you built content that revolved around keywords, proper keyword placement and keyword density. Keywords had to be placed in headers, anchor text and bold and italics tags – especially if you wanted your on-page factors to effectively contribute to your ranking ability.

Google’s latest update, Hummingbird, focuses on semantic search, or matching content with user intent. Because of this, the content’s message and how well the content contributes to the overall user experience are now more important. Before you had to make sure you had exactly five uses of your primary keyword strategically positioned throughout your content starting with the first sentence.

For example, when I search for “crock pot recipes”, these are the first five organic results:


In the first result, Google highlighted “slow-cooked” even though that wasn’t what I had searched for. Why? Because a crock-pot is a slow cooker. By asking for crock-pot recipes, Google determined that my intent as a user was also to find slow cook recipes.

By taking this approach, Google tries to serve content that answers our questions and meets our needs—relying heavily on our ability to create content that contributes to the overall user experience.

Do We Still Need Keywords?

I say yes, but I think they have a slightly different purpose now because we can use keywords and keyword research to make better and stronger content instead of just getting the attention of search engines. For instance:

  • We can use keyword research to find supporting language and terms for our content. Having a keyword or phrase you want your content to focus on is great, but being able to include additional phrases that support your theme is even better.
  • Keyword research offers valuable insight into how people search on the Internet, including the words they use to find information on a topic, variations and seasonal trends.
  • We can make sure that keywords supporting the theme of the content are placed in high profile places that catch the user’s eye, such as titles, headers and opening paragraphs. Even though Google’s focus is on user intent, keyword placement in meta descriptions and title tags can still improve your click through rate.

But I Don’t Produce High Volumes of Content!

And that’s okay. Thanks to schema.org, you too can have a site that provides great semantic relevance. Schemas are HTML tags added to your source code that help identify areas of your website that provide user value. They essentially tell search engines, “You want to check out this part of the website. There’s a piece of information here that the user may find interesting.”

Some of the benefits of using schema to help provide semantically relevant search results are:

  • Can be used to help search engines “see” dynamic or database driven content
  • Helps call attention to specific areas of web pages such as videos or images
  • Used by Google, Bing, and Yahoo
  • Available through plugins for easy integration in most blogging or CMS platforms

Moving Forward

Developing well written content that supports the user, encourages social sharing, and provides material people want to link to should always play an important role in your SEO strategy. While we should never forget off-page factors such as inbound linking, we can use semantically relevant content to improve overall engagement from start to finish.

By Betsy Rainwater

Keep reading in Strategy