Semantic SEO: How to Change Your Game to Win in Search

Remember the good ol’ days when SEO was straightforward? You follow a formula, check all the boxes, and get at least some results.

Ok, maybe results have never been guaranteed, but there were clear-cut steps in the process.

Has the game now changed with the rise of semantic search engines?

I recently read a post that Andy Crestodina wrote about semantic optimization and decided to reach out to him for some advice.

Here I’m sharing his responses—jam-packed with actionable tips.

Q: How does semantic search change the way marketers should do SEO? Does it make SEO harder or easier?


It changes things a lot, but it doesn’t make things harder.

They key now is to optimize for the topic, not just the phrase. Since Google is much better now at understanding the intent of the searcher and the true meaning of the phrase, we need to adapt by thinking beyond the phrase, beyond that combination of letters and words. We need to cover the topics in our writing more broadly.


  • Pick a target keyphrase.
  • Use it in your title, header and body text
  • …maybe sprinkle in a few related grammatical forms.
  • Hopefully, rank for the phrase.


  • Pick a target phrase.
  • Find the phrases that are semantically connected to that phrase.
  • Consider those phrases as you plan the scope of your SEO content.
  • Use the target phrase and those semantically connected phrases throughout your article, answering as many questions related to the broader topic.
  • Hopefully, rank for the phrase and the many related phrases.

Is it harder to take this approach? Well, it’s more work, but it’s not harder work. Actually, the research piece often makes the writing piece easier. And in my opinion, it’s more fun.

Q: If semantic SEO is all about targeting a broader topic instead of a specific phrase, does that mean that content needs to be longer to be more comprehensive?


Longer content will still perform better in search.

Your goal as a search marketer is simple…

Make the best page on the internet for your topic

…and it’s hard to do that in 400 words. If you sit down and make a sincere effort to create the most thorough and detailed piece of content on your topic, you will likely lose yourself deep in the topic. You’re about to go big.

And in semantic SEO, we’re talking about answering questions. We’re talking about ranking for “informational queries.” This is one of the three types of searches online.

breakdown of search intent by type

80% of online searches are people looking for answers.

10% are people looking for a specific product or service, and the remaining

10% are people trying to get to a specific website. (source)

Semantic SEO is especially relevant for that big, first group of searches. These people are doing research. They want answers. As Lee Odden says, our goal is to “be the best answer.”

Q: Does short-form content still work? And if so, in what scenarios?


Short form content might work great in certain channels. Highly visual, scannable content with light text and heavy images is great social content. Short form content can work well in email. But in SEO, short form content is risky.

If you’re goal is to provide a short answer, you’re probably competing with Google. Everyday, Google is providing richer search results, answering short, simple questions right there in the search engine results page (SERP).

google semantic interpretation to search intent

They’ve scraped the content from the websites (often with the help of web developers who tagged the content with SEO semantic markup using microformatting) and shown it to visitors right there on Who needs to click?

There are thousands of websites that show stock prices. But why visit them?

quick answer to search intent for stock price

When the 2016 summer olympics was a trending topic, a lot of websites showed the medal count. But who clicked on them?

one box answer to olympic medal count

Marketers beware. Short content answering short questions is not a sustainable SEO strategy.

Q: And what about targeting long-tail keywords with low competition? Is that a strategy that no longer works given that broader topics are the way to go for semantic search?


Absolutely. And with semantic SEO, it’s automatic.

When you target the topic, you target all the questions that are answered by your page, many of which will be long specific phrases. So the “long-tail” SEO happens by itself. You’ll be targeting dozens of long phrases that you probably never thought of.

Here’s an example. I wrote a 2900 word article about designing website footers. Thrilling topic, right? It’s definitely a post for those research-driven, informational queries. And I did everything I could to make it the best page on the topic.

It ranks for phrases I never would have thought to target, including 48 different 6+ word phrases according to my Queries report in Google Analytics.

So when you target the topic, you’re targeting many of the dozens of long-tail keyphrases that the topic addresses. Semantic SEO and long-tail SEO are one and the same.


Want to see the 6+ word phrases that your page ranks for? Use an advanced filter on the keyword report, using this in the RegEx field: ^s*[^s]+(s+[^s]+){5,}s*$

how to find longtail keywords in google analytics

Credit for that trick goes to Kevin Pike of RankFuse. Thanks, Kevin!

Q: Understanding semantic relationships seems very subjective. How does a marketer know with certainty what terms have a strong semantic relationship?


There are clues everywhere. Every act of keyword research reveals related phrases, suggested phrases, semantically connected phrases. If there was no semantic connection, those phrases wouldn’t be recommended.

Let’s take a quick tour through some tools and find the phrases connected to the initial phrase of “semantic SEO.” Here are five places to phrases to include if you were writing about this topic:

1. Google Related Searches

Search for anything, scroll down, see a list of phrases semantically connected to your query.

related searches to semantic seo

2. Google Suggest

Even before you searched for the phrase, Google began suggesting other phrases to you. Each of those phrases is a semantic cousin to your query. Enter the phrase plus any letter of the alphabet to get suggestions.

google keyword suggest


Rather than type all 26 letters of the alphabet, use to see them all at once.

auto-suggest keywords related to semantic seo

4. Google Keyword Planner

And of course, the Keyword Planner still suggests up to 800 phrases for any query. Each of these is semantically connected to your topic.

keyword ideas from google keyword planner

5. Google Trends

Another source for recommendations and connections. Scroll down to the bottom to see the semantically related phrases.

google related trends for semantic seo

6. Alexa

Of course, the Alexa tool is an excellent resource for keyword suggestions…

Kim, want to add a bit in here? 🙂


Sure! The Keyword Difficulty Tool suggests related keywords based on what real people search. It’s just like Amazon’s “people who bought this also bought that” feature. Enter your target phrase and you’ll find a list of keywords that the people who search that phrase also search.

alexa suggestions for related keywords

Q: So once you’ve found the phrases, what next? What do you do with this data?


As you do this research, build a list of these phrases. Then review the list, step back and reconsider your topic. Ask yourself a few questions.

  • Which of these phrases would fit into the article you were planning to write?
  • Would a set of these phrases work better for a related article? Something separate that could link to the original?

Probably, you’ll conclude two things: Your article is going to be way more detailed and comprehensive than you’d originally planned. You’re going to publish another topic or two and build up a small family of content.

You just discovered how SEO can make you a better writer. Surprised?

Q: Does keyword research still matter? If so, are there any changes the marketer should take into consideration when doing it?


Absolutely. Keyword research is the ultimate in data-driven empathy.

And building search optimized pages that answer questions in detailed ways is still an amazing way to attract an audience. But now, to adapt to semantic SEO, there is an additional step. We have to go beyond choosing and using a phrase. We have to build up relevance for the topic by finding those semantically connected phrases and building up relevance more broadly.

Don’t just research keywords. Research topics.

Q: How about on-page SEO best practices—is it still important to include your primary target keyword in the URL, Page Title, H1, body content, etc.?


Yes. Optimizing for search is still about indicating relevance. All the authority in the world won’t help you if your page isn’t obviously relevant for your topic. So you still have a primary phrase and you still use that phrase in the title, header and body text.

The basics of on-page optimization in SEO don’t change with semantic SEO, with two exceptions. First, use those related phrases you discovered through your research wherever relevant. Probably, they’re big ideas that you’re adding in, so it would be natural to include them as subheads (h2 – h6)

Second, adapt your content to natural language search, by including full sentences that contain the complete meaning. Include the complete question with the complete answer.

In other words, don’t break up your meaning across several sentences.

Then The Future of Search: Semantic SEO

Semantic search engines are here. So it’s key to optimize your content for them. You can do this by using the phrases that are related to your main topic. That’s what semantic search optimization is all about!
Now What is semantic SEO?

Semantic SEO is the art and science of adapting your content to rank within semantic search engines. It involves targeting topics, not keywords, by including semantically related phrases within your content.

Write like you’re writing for the dictionary. This tactic may also increase the chances that you’ll appear in the answer box.

answer box for semantic seo definition


Thanks Andy, this has been really helpful as always!

Here’s my takeaway from our conversation:

Keyword research is critical to semantic SEO, maybe even more so than before. Before, it was the quantifiable way to discover demand and competition for your topic. Now it also informs the content planning process. So while the act of keyword research has changed a little bit, the value it adds to the end results has increased.

For more insights on the future of search, see Andy’s original article on Semantic SEO.

Happy ranking!

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *