How to Future-Proof Your Search Rankings: 5 Tips for Semantic SEO

By Andy Crestodina

When I was a kid, search engine optimization was simpler. Pick a target phrase and use it on the page. Put it in your title, header and body text. Pretty straightforward. These are still (and will always be) the SEO basics.

But then a shift made SEO more subtle, more complex and more interesting. Today, search rankings aren’t just about choosing and using a target keyphrase. It’s about the broader meaning of that phrase and the intent of the searcher.

SEO is about topics, not keyphrases.

This post is a specific, step-by-step process for semantic SEO writing and keyword targeting. Follow these steps to adapt your content and future-proof your rankings or watch this quick video that explains it all.

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1. Target the topic, not just the keyphrase

Google is officially a semantic search engine, which means it’s connecting visitors to answers. To pages that contain the meaning they’re looking for, not just the letters and words they typed into that little box.

To adapt to this mega-trend, you need to target a broader topic, not just the specific phrase. Using related phrases in your writing, covering the subtopics that are semantically related to your main topic.

There are several ways to find those phrases are semantically related, deep inside the heart of Google.

First, just start typing your primary target keyphrase into Google. Notice how it begins suggesting search terms?

As you slowly type in each letter, you’ll see more. Type in another letter as if you’re starting a new word. Try entering a question word at the beginning of your phrase. You’ll soon find a wealth of words connected to your topic.

Here’s an example of how we did this research for a recent post about web design tips. These words and phrases that are connected to that meaning: “tips and tricks” “for beginners” “for small business.”

Create a list of these related phrases:

Shortcut! A fast way to find all of the phrases is It suggests every phrase Google would suggest as if you typed in the next letter of the alphabet 26 times.

Scan through and put some of these on your list.

Next, just search for your target keyphrase and scroll down to the bottom of the search results. See the “search related to…” links? Those are phrases that are connected to your meaning.

See anything you missed? Put these on your list.

You can use competitive analysis tools to find even more related phrases. Search for your main target keyphrase again. See the top-ranked page for your target phrase? That page likely ranks for many dozens of related phrases.

To find a list of all the phrases for which that page ranks, put that top-ranked site into a rank checking tool such as SEMrush (note: the free version gives you some data, the paid version gives you all of it).

See the related phrases? Put these on your list.

By now, you should have a nice list of phrases and subtopics, all of which are semantically connected to the article you were about to write.

The list might be within your content marketing template or just on a paper next to your keyword. It doesn’t matter.

Now as you write the article…

…simply incorporate these ideas and phrases into the piece. Find ways to include them in the natural flow of the writing. As you use each phrase, cross it off the list.

Here is the list of phrases and subtopics I used as I wrote the web design tips article.

This approach helps to indicate relevance for the broader topic, not just the specific phrase. But it also pushes you to create a more thorough, comprehensive article, which is what Google really wants after all. That’s semantic SEO!

You might be surprised at what it does for the quality of your content.

SEO can make you a better writer.

As Google refines its algorithm based on the way search queries are changing (ie, natural language queries through digital personal assistants like Siri), we’re seeing on-page keyword and content-based features grow in importance. Ride that wave by ensuring your content is adapted to semantic search.” – Jayson DeMers, EmailAnalytics

We have now adapted to semantic search.

2. Answer the related questions

Google answers questions. It’s one of the main reason people use it. With this simple understanding, a great way to adapt your content to the future of search is to find the questions related to your topic and answer them in your content.

It sounds so straightforward, but a lot of content marketers miss this simple trick.

The questions are everywhere. Keep your eyes open as you were searching for the related phrases in step one. You may see these.

Behind every search term there’s an intent that Google aims to match. Group questions according to their intent profile and publish content that targets them. Create additional content to address questions that better match a different intent for the same topic. Link those pieces together into topical clusters.” – Stephen Jeske, MarketMuse

Another fun source for questions is Answer the Public. Just enter the topic and it will scrape the web for dozens of related questions.

ProTip! A more powerful, more complete source of questions is the paid version of BuzzSumo (recommended). The question analyzer finds questions asked in Quora, Reddit, Stack Exchange and any niche site related to your topic.

Once you’ve found the most relevant related questions, make sure to answer them in your content. The questions make great subheads and the answers might be the paragraphs below.

Next, we have a grammar tip for those Q&A’s.

3. Voice search, featured snippets and natural language

Every day, millions of searches are done without keyboards. We are talking to our phones and smart speakers, and those voice-based queries tend to be longer, natural language phrases. They also tend to be questions.

To adapt your content to this trend, optimize your content by using complete sentences that provide the complete meaning, both questions and answers.

For example, if you’re writing a post about enzyme exfoliation, rather than writing this:

One type of exfoliation uses enzymes. This approach breaks down the “glue” that holds dead skin cells together.

Write sentences that contain the complete meaning, and would stand on their own, such as:

What is enzyme exfoliation?
Enzyme exfoliation is a type of chemical exfoliation that breaks down the “glue” that holds dead, dulling skin cells together.

Notice how each of these sentences stands on its own? They contain full, semantic meanings. The idea is to write like you’re writing a dictionary will the full-sentence question and answer.

Winning the featured snippet

This approach to semantic SEO writing is also good for traditional SEO. It can help you win the “featured snippet” that appears at the top of many Google search result pages. Getting your content here is like ranking #0, above all the others.

The pages that become featured snippets tend to be the content that includes those full sentences that provide complete answers.

Note: Featured snippets are always taken from pages that rank on the first page in Google to begin with. So don’t expect to ever be selected as the featured snippet if the content doesn’t also rank high.

It’s those featured snippets that are powering Google voice search. So it’s an important type of semantic relevance.

Answer boxes have the benefit of making the search results below somewhat irrelevant. It’s a dominant position. But they have the disadvantage of including enough content that the visitor may not need to click through to the page.

“If you see that certain searches return “featured snippets” and if you’re ranking on page one for those searches, try tuning up your on-page content and title tag to better match the question. Once you clear the page-1 hurdle, Google seems to be relying mostly on how well your page matches the question. The closer you match, the better your chances.” – Dr. Pete Meyers, MOZ

Here we see how this kind of writing helped win the featured snippet in the skin care example above. Notice how the grammar helps Google know what the page is about.

We have now adapted our writing for voice search and featured snippets.

4. Adapt to User Interaction Signals: Use formatting and media that keeps visitors longer

Quality affects rankings, right? Better articles rank higher. But how does Google know what’s good? The answer is in your Analytics.

Visitors who come to your page from a search engine sometimes leave without visiting another page. This is called a “bounce.” There are two kind of bounces:

  • The visitor hated the page and hit the back button after 10 seconds.
  • The visitor loved the page, read every word, stayed for 10 minutes and then finally left

So a “bounce” doesn’t correlate with high or low quality. But the time on page does.

The first example is a “short click” and the second is a “long click.” The difference is dwell time. Dwell time is the amount of time spent on a page after the visitor arrives from the search engine. It has a powerful correlation with quality and relevance so search engines use it as a search ranking factor.

You may be able to see the correlation between rankings and time on page in your own Analytics. Look at the Behavior > Site Content > All Pages report. Set it to comparison view for Avg Time on Page. There’s your correlation!

So the next question is how do you get visitors to stay? The best answer is to make it a great page (see #5 below) but there are other, more specific tactics:

  • Add a relevant image high on the page
    Pay attention to blog image best practices. A good image pulls the visitor in.
  • Add multiple images
    If the visitors scans down and finds a long desert of text, they are more likely to leave. Make an image visible at every scroll depth!
  • Break up those long paragraphs
    A sure way to lose a visitor is to hit them with a wall of text. Keep paragraphs down to a  maximum of three lines. Four tops.
  • Add a video
    Embed a video at the top of the page. Use a custom thumbnail with a face and a headline to maximize the percentage of people who watch it. And if you’re curious, you can measure exactly how video impacts average time on the page.

That explains the correlation between video, formatting, images and rankings. Now you know how quality directly impacts rankings.

We have adapted our content for user interaction signals in search algorithms.

Speaking of quality…

5. Adapt to all future changes

Here’s some advice you don’t often hear in SEO blogs. But it’s the single most important piece of advice I can give you. Here goes:

Make the best page on the internet for your topic.

The key is in Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines. This is the 160-page book of instructions that Google gives to the quality raters who test Google search results. Here’s the key takeaway:

The page and website are expert, authoritative, and trustworthy for the topic of the page.

Have you make a page that is expert, authoritative and trustworthy? Make the best page on the web for your topic and you’ve future-proofed your content for all future SEO changes.

How did it work for us?

When we follow this exact process, the results are often very strong. These steps have helped us win better rankings, longer visits and featured snippets. Here are details for the “web design tips” example above. That article:

  • Ranks one for the primary phrase “web design tips”
  • Ranks for 1300+ related phrases (according to Google Search Console)
  • Attracts 30-70 visits per day
  • Has an average time on page of 6+ minutes

Tip! Want to see every phrase that a page ranks for? Follow the steps in this post: What do I rank for?

The bottom line on top rankings

You don’t have to be a computer scientist to adapt your content. You don’t need to understand “latent semantic indexing” or what an ontological library is. Although the brains behind semantic search may be very complex, the process for making better content is not.

If you have actually made a page that provides the best answer to the question or offers the most detailed set of instructions, then the search engines are working very hard to help you …There are thousands of math PhDs on your side, doing their best to send visitors your way.

If you have not made a great page, then you’re just trying to trick a robot. You’re using links and keywords to win something you don’t deserve …There are thousands of computer scientists fighting against you, trying to keep you out of search results.

There is more where this came from…

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