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Semantics and Relevance: Even Keywords Need Support Sometimes

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Posted by: Jahnelle Pittman-Seaman

semanticsSemantics: the study of language meaning

Analysis: an investigation of the component parts of a whole and their relations in making up the whole

David Harry over at the SEO Training Dojo wrote an excellent article entitled Semantic Analysis for SEO: Going Beyond LDA. For you search geeks that understand… well, search geek, just click the link, head on over and have yourselves a good read. For our readers who aren’t search geeks, have no idea what LDA is, and are now throwing their hands up in the air saying, “oh crap, now what”, stick around.

I bring up David’s article because he makes a very valid, very interesting point about keyword vs. word usage. These tidbits of information can be of huge value to you, who may be reading SEO blogs to learn how to create your own campaign (or, at the very least, to understand what your SEO company representative is saying when they tell you how the campaign is going). It’s just one more piece of the puzzle you can use to gain the whole picture.

Adding Meaning to Key Terms

There’s this thing; It’s called semantic analysis (SA). As David mentions in the article, SA isn’t necessarily about synonyms and plurals – and here’s where this article really begins…

In content, you have synonyms, plurals and related terms. When you read a sentence, you get the meaning of a word based on the context. You get the meaning of the sentence based on the surrounding sentences. In fact, a lot of our reading comprehension doesn’t come because we’re walking dictionaries, but because we use surrounding information to support our understanding of the written word.

Take, for instance, the word pilferer. Do you know off the top of your head what it means? Some of us may see the word, not recognize it and go find a dictionary. Others “guess”, using the surrounding text…

“He’s a compulsive pilferer. Everywhere he goes, stuff disappears into his pockets. Last week, he walked out of the store with a pack of gum without paying for it. He doesn’t even like gum!”

Okay, so maybe you wouldn’t use the word in a normal conversation, but using the surrounding text, you’ve probably guessed a pilferer is a thief. How do you know? The surrounding text:

…stuff disappears into his pockets… walked out of a store… without paying for it

Yet, none of these words are synonymous with thief.

Like Human, Like Search Engine

Search engines work much the same way. They using surrounding text to “understand” how relevant a page is to the search term. Apple is a good example. With just the word without surrounding context, you could mean:

  • The fruit
  • The company
  • A color
  • A desert

The SEs decide what you mean by surrounding text:

  • The fruit – Granny Smith, Jonathan, Autumn Gold
  • The company – iPhone, iTunes, MacBook
  • Color – Candy Apple Red, paint, color
  • Desert – Candied apple, cake, cobbler

Without these surrounding words, all you get on (at least) the first two pages is information about Apple – the company.

What does this mean to you?

When you write an article, blog or web page, reread with an eye on semantic value. Consider what you’ve written about when linking. The worst thing you can do for your site and your visitors is write a whole bunch of words and then throw a keyword or two in there. Frankly, it just makes for crap.

It’s all about relevance, but relevance doesn’t necessarily mean just similar words or even words that mean the same thing(i.e. SEO and search engine optimization). Create a list of words you might use to support your key terms like using:

  • exercise to support Pilates
  • PPC to support conversions
  • cat to support jaguar (David’s example)
  • Granny Smith to support apple

If you take the time to make sure your SEO efforts – whether it’s writing Meta data or building links – include supporting words, you’ll end up building a rare thing: a tightly focused website with excellent links, strong ranking and content your readers (and the SEs) can understand.

So, right now, I challenge you to look at your site, your articles, your blogs, your links, what have you, keeping semantics in mind. Do your keywords get the support they need?

Comments (5)

  • Avatar
    JRPittman Reply

    “I think if people genuinely write good content…”

    Agreed, Jason, definitely, and thank you for your comments.

    Here’s the problem, and one of the few things that rubs me wrong about SEO. People read about keywords and thousands of keyword-stuffed articles went out on the Web. People read about keywords in headlines and, lo and behold, keyword-stuffed headlines populated the SERPs.

    It seems that people think keywords and SEO can make up for lack of writing skills (or lack of confidence in writing skills). Ten years ago, maybe fifteen, most wouldn’t have considered writing an article or blog for their company and putting it online. They’d have hired a copywriter.
    Now there’s SEO. Throw a few keywords in and no one will notice poor writing.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… SEO serves a purpose, yes – but nothing compares in terms of retaining readers, getting links and gaining authority like well-written content.

    …and you’d be amazed at how many people might write an article about jaguars without specifying whether they’re talking about cats or cars…

    December 1, 2010 at 10:11 am
  • Avatar
    Ken Jansen Reply

    So I need to spell out that by Kansas City, I really mean Overland Park and Leawood. This is great information. I am going to review some of my pages now to see what I can improve. Thank you.

    December 10, 2010 at 10:40 am
    • Avatar
      JRPittman Reply

      Glad you found the post helpful, Ken. Always remember that the more clear you are (especially when clarifying an area), the better off you are!

      December 10, 2010 at 11:00 am
  • Avatar
    Tim Ryan Reply

    Honestly, I should admit that I was not aware about the application of semantic analysis and it was recently only that I came across some blogs using the semantic analysis . What you’ve written about the concept of semantic value is very much in detail and well written.

    December 2, 2011 at 7:40 am
  • Avatar
    Richard Thompson Reply

    I think Google’s most recent update, Hummingbird really emphasizes the point you made a few years ago. Your point is more relevant than ever now that Google supports more conversation-like search queries, so keywords out of context even mean less to search engines now as well. Great post, still relevant several years after posting!

    February 3, 2014 at 12:27 pm

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Semantics and Relevance: Even Keywords Need Support Sometimes