Using Semantics for Keyword Research

Semantics concerns the meaning of words – historically a weak area for search engines. Over the years we’ve seen vast improvement in Google’s ability to understand what searchers mean when they enter keywords. You can capitalize on this fact by changing the way you conduct keyword research. Following these tips will also strengthen your website’s content.

Sujan Patel wrote a fascinating article on this topic for Search Engine Journal. After explaining how Google figures out what searchers mean when they enter keywords, he discussed five steps you can take in your keyword research that will help you get found more often by your target audience.

I’m unspeakably grateful that we’re passed the days when optimizing your keywords meant “pick a single target keyword and cram it into your web content as many times as you can,” as Patel characterizes the obsolete style. He correctly notes that “That ship has sailed.” Thanks in part to Google’s Penguin update, the search engine is better at spotting keyword stuffing. But more importantly, Google “understands” words used in context better than it used to.

Patel used the word “fan” as an example. Most searchers don’t use a single keyword anymore; they’ll put in several, which gives Google some kind of context. It knows that “stargate fan site” is not the same thing as “industrial fan review.” Because of this, it can return relevant results to searchers.

But it goes deeper than just returning websites with the specific phrase. Patel notes that “Google and the other search engines use their semantic indexing capabilities to pull results from related SERPs” and deliver the goods. What does this mean? A searcher entering the phrase “industrial fan review” will see results for that phrase, but the search engine might also include results for the phrases “industrial fan comparison,” “industrial fan guide” or “commercial fan review,” among others, to ensure relevance.

Does this mean that your website will show up for related phrases that you haven’t necessarily targeted? Quite possibly, but wouldn’t it be better to target those phrases anyway? Of course it would. The good news is, you can use the search engines’ own semantic indexing behaviors to help you do your research and plan your content around keyword phrases.

We’ll start by building what Patel referred to as “Level 1” core keywords. These are keywords that vary from our target phrase only slightly, without straying far from its meaning. We’ll enlist Google’s help for this task. Just put your key phrase into Google, and wait for the results to display. Then look at the left-hand sidebar; you’ll find a link for “Related searches.” Hit that, and Google will generate a list, complete with links. When Patel tried it for “industrial fan review,” he got 15 slightly different key phrase, including “industrial fan guide,” “”drum fan review,” “industrial fan manual,” and more.

Not all of these may be relevant, so you may want to click through to check any that look a little questionable. One “related search” Google suggested was “industrial fan lyrics;” that key phrase sounds a lot more like it’s related to music than commercial fans! But that caveat aside, the advantage of starting your keyword research this way is that Google recognizes all of these phrases as semantically related; you know it does, because it just said so. Patel notes that this makes them “a powerful starting point for our keyword research.”

{mospagebreak title=Expanding Your Keyword List}

Once you have your Level 1 core keywords, you need to create a list of supporting keywords. Imagine why someone might be searching on the phrase “industrial fan review.” They’re probably shopping for a fan and want to compare what’s out there. If they’re shopping for a fan, they probably have some kind of heating and/or cooling need. They might even need to dry a wet area of their machine shop. “By brainstorming the reasons search users might have for entering our particular target keyword into the engines, we can compile a whole new list of keywords related to our main phrase,” Patel explained.

If you incorporate into your content key phrases like “how to cool shop,” “overheated shop,” “cooling machinery” and so on, you might even capture searchers before they try the phrase “industrial fan review.” That gets them earlier in their buying cycle, and may help your site rank higher in the SERPs.

There’s one final level of keyword phrases we need to examine. Patel refers to these as Level 3 stem keywords. With our level 1 core keywords, we considered what Google thought was directly relevant to one of our target key phrases. With our level 2 keywords, we tried to understand searchers’ motives BEFORE they entered that core key phrase. With level 3 keywords, we going to think about the kinds of questions a user might ask AFTER they’ve used a core keyword, and figure out how to answer them.

So if a searcher lands on your industrial fan website after searching for the phrase “industrial fan review,” and has read some content to help him with his problem, what is his next logical question? It might be “How do I buy a fan?” It’s easy to build key phrases around this: “buy industrial fan,” “how to purchase shop fans,” and “where to buy commercial fans” are a few examples. But he might also need to know how to get the system up and running, and how to use it. So “industrial fan set up,” “how to use industrial fan,” or even “build a commercial fan” might be relevant key phrases you can use.

All right, you’ve now collected three different levels of keyword phrases. What do you do with them? Here’s where the magic begins. By pulling keyword phrases from these lists, you can begin outlining content appropriate for your website. Patel recommends starting with one level 1 keyword phrase, and pulling one or two key phrases from your level 2 and level 3 lists.

Patel took these four phrases for his example: “industrial fan guide” (our level 1 phrase), “how to cool shop” (a level 2 phrase), “overheated shop” (another level 2 phrase), and “buy industrial fan” (a level 3 phrase). You can easily use these four key phrases in an article titled “The Complete Industrial Fan Guide.” In this article, you could discuss how to use fans to cool an overheated shop, and how to buy them for this purpose. Patel notes that “Touching on all of these different points will improve the search engines’ understanding of your site, as well as open you up to potential SERPs exposure for a much wider variety of keyword phrases.

Let me make one final point. The content you’re writing may be built around keywords; nevertheless, you should not forget for whom you’re actually creating it – your website’s HUMAN visitors. It should be readable, informative, and engaging. If it sounds stilted, you need to rework and rethink what you’ve written.

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