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

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Andy Crestodina

Times change! Platforms evolve and Google is one of them. As the search engine changes, so does search engine optimization (SEO).

Actually, search doesn’t change much and doesn’t change fast, which is why we rarely write posts about trends. Articles we published years ago are still relevant today.

But there is a gradual evolution in trends and tactics in search. And we’ve rounded up a few of them here. These are the five most important actions you can take to make sure that your marketing aligns with where search is going.

Take these specific steps to future-proof your rankings!

1. Adapt to Semantic Search: Target Topics, Not Just Phrases

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

To adapt to this, you need to target a broader topic, not just the specific phrase. Spread your meaning out, using related phrases, covering the things that are semantically linked.

There are several ways to find the phrases are semantically linked, deep in the heart of Google.

First, start typing your target phrase into Google. See how it begins suggesting search terms? As you slowly type in each letter, you’ll see more. Try typing more letters 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 website footer design.


Those are phrases that are connected to your meaning. Write them down.

Shortcut! Use Keyword to find dozens of suggested phrases quickly.


Next, hit enter to 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. Write them down.


Third, you can use competitive analysis. See the top ranked page for your target phrase? That page likely ranks for many related phrases. Each is semantically linked to your topic.

To find a list of all these phrases, 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).

Click “Positions” to see the search rankings for that domain.


Now you can filter this report to show just the phrases related to your topic. See the related phrases? Write them down.


By now, you should have a list of phrases related to your topic with strong evidence that these words are semantically linked to your topic.

For our footer design article, these were our words:

website copyright footer

website footer copyright text

website footer examples

header and footer

website footer definition

at the bottom of the page

designing a website footer

fat footer



best practices





links SEO


social media


purpose of



Now as we write the article, we incorporate these ideas into the piece. We find ways to include these phrases in the natural flow of the writing. This indicates our relevance not just for the specific phrase, but for the broader topics.

Jayson DeMers, AudienceBloom

“As Google refines its algorithm based on the way search queries are changing (i.e., natural language queries through digital personal assistants like Siri), we’re seeing on-page keyword and content-based features grow in importance. In Moz’s 2015 Search Engine Ranking Factors report, respondents (all of whom were industry experts) rated such elements as the third-highest in importance with regard to ranking correlations, right behind domain and page-level link features. Ride the wave by ensuring your content is adapted to semantic search.”

We have now adapted to semantic search.

2. Adapt to Voice Search: Use Full, Natural Language Sentences

Every day, more of us are doing hands-off, keyboardless searches. We already use voice to ask questions in our phones (Siri and Google Now) and we’ll soon be talking to our phones and cars.

Voice-based queries tend to be longer phrases. They tend to be questions.

To adapt your content to this trend, optimize your content by using 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.

See how each sentence stands on its own? Write like your writing a dictionary. This aligns your content with longer, keyboardless queries.

This kind of writing can benefit you in desktop, keyboard-based searches. Ever seen an “answer box” in search results? These tend to appear when the content includes sentences that provide complete answers in complete sentences.


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.

Dr. Pete Meyers, MOZ

“If you see that certain searches return “featured snippets” (Google’s name for answer boxes with attribution) and if you’re ranking on page 1 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. Keep in mind that some questions are implied. A search like “ethernet” may return a featured snippet, because Google is seeing it as implying “What is ethernet?”. So, match to what Google thinks the question is.”

We have now adapted our writing to voice-based search.

3. Adapt to Future Link Spam Penalties: Build Your Network of Content Creators

To call it “link building” is politically incorrect. I understand why. It feels spammy. But links and mentions from authority sites do matter. They are perhaps the most important search ranking factor.

As the last artificial link building tricks are discovered and the few remaining link spam tactics are penalized, there is one sure way to dodge future changes and potential penalties: focus on relationships, not links.

If you trace back the process from lead to traffic, traffic to ranking, and ranking to links, you’ll find it starts with people.


These days, those relationships typically start on social media. If you understand how social media affects search engine rankings, you know that there are specific actions that lead to your desired outcomes.

  • Find content creators using social media search tools.
  • Subscribe to their content, follow, listen and learn.
  • Interact with them within their content, through comments and shares.
  • Connect on social networks, reach out and move the conversation offline.
  • Invite them into your content through collaboration, quotes, roundups and email interviews.
  • Take it offline, on the phone, Skype, G+ Hangouts or in person.

It’s about making friends! Building an active network of bloggers will do wonders for your future search efforts. This can not be overstated.

Andrea Vahl, Social Media Coach, Speaker & Strategist

“Creating relationships with other people in my industry has been so beneficial to getting more links – from the opportunity to guest post to the awareness around each other’s content.”

Need help? Take a look at our online networking guide, which lists 35 steps for connecting with anyone.

We have now adapted to changes for off-site factors such as link spam penalties.

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 the dwell time. Dwell time is the average time on page for visitors from search engines. Search engines see this and use it as a search ranking factor. It’s a powerful indicator of quality and relevance.

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 with Avg Time on Page as the dimension. 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 featured image
    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 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. Short videos mean longer visits.

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

We have adapted our content for future changes to the importance of user interaction signals in search algorithms.

Speaking of quality…

5. Adapt to All Future Changes! Make the Best Page on the Internet for the Topic

Here’s some advice you hear far too little on SEO posts. But it’s the single most important piece of advice I can give. Here goes:

Make the best piece of content on the internet for your topic

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.

Make the best page on the web for your topic and you’ve future-proofed your content for all future SEO changes.

Follow these tips and you’ll sleep well far into the new year.

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What are your thoughts?

Comments (21)
  • I look at some SEO monthly packages and ask myself “are you freakin nut’s”. I think it (google) is beginning to care a lot less about your tags and more about what you actually have to say –

    after goggle recently admitted 70% of search queries are based on synonyms I’m doing less keyword research.

    It’ll also be interesting to see in what direction rankbrain will shift SEO

  • Andy, great article. Simple tips that even a small business executive can follow ;). Can’t wait to integrate this into our business blog.

    • Thanks, Karla. Yes, any business of any size can apply this. It’s mostly just a slight shift in mindset and word choice. Not time consuming or expensive at all!

    • Perhaps the good news is that many tools/techniques are free.

  • you always have amazingly useful content – I just don’t have enough time to make use of it all – especially like how to build network to help with links

  • Bang on as usual. Thanks Andy. One of the biggest takeaways many overlook is that Google search is free and it provides those semantic terms. Man, can you get a long way on those.

  • Excellent post Andy. I have been reading a lot about what Google will be changing when it comes to search. Time on page is a strong indication of your relevance. I wonder if there is any benchmark to get as a goal to reach… would it be 5 minutes… is 2 minutes good? I have never heard of the tool- I am heading there now to check it out. Many thanks!

    • Time on the page depends on many factors. It is not only the quality of the text. This product or service is a specific. There are dificult salles or are easy.

  • Hey Andy, another great article. Great tip on SEMRush, finding the related keywords that competitors are ranking for. I’ll remember that one!

    • So valuable. It’s like having access to the Acqusition > SEO > Queries report for any website! FYI, I’m actually do a webinar based on this post for SEMrush next week. I’ll mention you next time I tweet it.

      Seeing you here in the comments is like having a little bit of Ian in Chicago…

  • Funny, I have been doing these things for years…..

  • Definitely, It is an awesome guide on seo and for beginners. I leaned some useful thing after reading this awesome article. Thank Andy for sharing 🙂 +1

  • I start today rebuilt my site keep these advices in my mind.I hope a huge boost in ranking.

  • Best article I read about this topic. As a semantic copywriter from linz – I can tell you from my experience that search is allready heading in our derection!

  • I agreed with your all valuable points. There is no doubt that if we are following these all trends in our marketing, then swiftly we can get our aim. Thanks for this great resource.

  • I truly love so much of what you write, Andy. This post is a particular favorite. Have already started sending it to clients, with suggestions of which number to read…attention spans are short, afterall. 😉 If I can get them to read 1 paragraph and truly get it, that’s a big win!

  • Any thoughts on video duration? I’ve been sprinkling video in but haven’t seen any stats on what helps engagement for long clicks.

  • Andy, great article. Simple tips that even a small business executive can follow ;). Can’t wait to integrate this into our business blog.

  • Great list of SEO tips… (are all Andy’s SEO pros? lol) Thanks for sharing – I’m a big proponent of:
    “Adapt to Semantic Search: Target Topics, Not Just Phrases”

  • Time on page/engagement is an important ranking factor. Within our GA profiles time on page isn’t calculated for bounces. My understanding is time on site is calculated from (timestamp of page view B) – (timestamp of pageview A). If there is no pageview B (indicating a bounce) then time on site can’t be calculated. Do we have any insight into how Google gets this info? Do they have a grand analytics account for the web (laughing)? What if a user quickly clicked through to a second site and not back to Google, how would Google know it was a quick bounce?

  • Great article you have here, Andy! No wonder you have so many followers and has a lot of good feedback based on the comments. I do agree that time changes. The trend is changing. Simple tips yet so informative. Thanks for sharing!

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