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SEO 12 min read

What Is Semantic SEO And How To Use It To Boost Your Traffic?

chart, semantic seo, user intent, results, boost results
Author of aricle about MUM
Blog Editor at Serpstat
In recent years, search engines have undergone rapid change. For example, Google has improved its ability to comprehend natural language in order to provide users better search results.

Therefore, the single keyword strategy is no longer effective. The deep learning and natural language processing techniques that Google uses are taken into consideration by semantic SEO.

This is an exciting and all-encompassing subject. To understand it better, I talked to Andy Crestodina, an expert with extensive SEO experience.
Please, welcome Andy!
Andy Crestodina
Co-founder and CMO, Orbit Media

Andy Crestodina is a co-founder and the Strategic Director of Orbit Media, an award-winning digital agency in Chicago.


Over the past 21+ years, Andy has provided digital strategy to more than a thousand businesses. He is a top-rated speaker at national conferences, a writer for the biggest blogs and the host of a tiny podcast.

What is semantic SEO?

Semantic SEO is about optimizing content, not just for one specific keyphrase, but the broader topic. Rather than simply using the primary keyphrase in the title, header, and body, content is optimized by incorporating semantically-related phrases, questions, and subtopics into the article.

Google isn't matching the words from the searcher's query with keywords on your page. Google is trying to understand the searcher's intent and present search results that will satisfy their information needs.

Therefore, to be discovered in the search, the content and keyword usage should be spread beyond the primary and secondary keyphrases, answering the related questions, touching on the adjacent topics, and incorporating the words and phrases that are semantically related to the primary keyphrase.

This supports the rankings for the primary keyphrase and helps the page rank for dozens or even hundreds of other phrases.

In this example, you can see that a page optimized for "SEO best practices" also ranks for 1000+ other phrases.
well optimazed page
Page analytics
Here’s a simple way to describe semantic SEO:
The best SEOs target the topic, not just the keyphrase.

How does this approach affect keyword research?

For starters, you worry much less about keyword volume.

Why would I target a phrase that has just ten searches per month? Because I’m not going to rank just for that keyphrase. I’m also going to rank for the 100+ related phrases. So the monthly search volume for a specific phrase always underestimates the actual demand for the topic.

Here’s an example: while doing keyword research for an article about “website footer design,” the tools suggest that there are hundreds, not thousands, of monthly searches for the phrase. A high-ranking page may capture 25% of that volume, right? So a very successful effort may attract a few hundred visits at most.

But look at the data. The page attracts around 4000 visitors per month. How is that possible? It’s because the page ranks for 1600+ phrases. How is that possible? It’s because the page is relevant for dozens of closely related subtopics. The page was created using semantic SEO.
semantic seo results
Results of the page created using semantic SEO 
Monthly search volume was never a perfect estimate of organic traffic. If you’re good at semantic SEO, you can multiply the monthly volume by 10x for a better estimate.

How do you find all of these closely related phrases?

There are many sources. Here are a few:

Google itself:
  • Suggested phrases (those that appear before you finish entering your primary keyphrase)
  • People Also Ask feature

Existing Rankings:
  • Competitor analysis: The other phrases do the high-ranking pages rank for?
  • Google Search Console: What phrases does the current page rank for?

Keyword Research Tools:
Go to Keyword research - Related keywords - get phrases that are connected with your query.
related keywords
Also among the keyword research tools
  • Google Trends
  • A ton of other paid tools…

User Generated Content websites
  • Quora
  • Reddit
  • Stack Overflow

The first items on this list pull semantically-related phrases from the primary source, Google. If a phrase, subtopic, or question appears, it is definitely related to your primary keyphrase. You have proof positive that it’s a relevant phrase within Google.

Isn’t this just good on-page SEO?

Yes. A lot of SEOs have done this for years. But too many are still too narrowly focused on a target keyphrase. Too many are still producing thin content stuffed with variations of a specific phrase. Too many SEOs think that “sprinkling” phrases into content will be enough to rise in the rankings.

As “semantic SEO” approach acknowledges that search is about intent. And content is (or isn’t) relevant to a topic, not just a specific phrase. Ultimately, search technology is about matching the intent to the topic.

For expert SEOs, this is an important reminder.
For more junior SEOs, it’s an eye-opener.

How does semantic SEO affect search performance?

It has a dramatic impact.

Imagine you’re writing an article about how to use visuals in your marketing. After some research, you’ve concluded that “marketing visuals” is a good phrase. In other words, it aligns with your content strategy (intent), you have sufficient authority (competition), and the SERP isn’t overcrowded with features (likely CTR).

You write the article and drop the target phrase in your title, header, and body text. All done, right?

Not even close.

The best page on the topic of “marketing visuals” would naturally use other, closely related phrases. Here are some that Google suggests, spotted simply by searching for the phrase and seeing what other queries are suggested.

  • visual content
  • social media
  • importance of
  • types of
  • email marketing
  • marketing campaign
  • Examples, ideas
  • visual branding
  • best practices
  • books
  • awards

Here are some questions spotted in the People Also Ask box:

  • What is visual content marketing?
  • What is visual marketing design?
  • What are visual marketing techniques?
  • What are advertising visuals?
  • What are three types of visual media?

Google clearly has aligned these phrases and questions with the topic. Therefore, a great page on the topic will likely include these phrases. In other words, if the page does not include some of these, it probably isn’t a great page on the topic. I’ll put it more directly:

A page that doesn’t cover some of these subtopics and related phrases, is not optimized for the keyphrase.

So let’s build some of these into the content. But some phrases are irrelevant to the topic (advertising, books, awards). Let’s skip those. And some of them are super relevant, so much so that we should add entire sections to the article to cover them (examples, email marketing, branding)

In the end, you have a very detailed article covering the topic. Far greater detail and relevance than it would have had if you hadn’t done the semantic SEO research.

I’ve actually written this article on marketing visuals, so let’s look closely at the content and the results. Here is a zoomed-out screenshot with a list of the elements included in the piece:
breakdown of a article written using semantic seo
Breakdown of a article written using semantic seo
You can see it was a significant effort. Like many of our articles, it was a 10-hour writing/editing/design project. The video was a separate effort that took around 4 hours total.

How well did it perform? It’s been live for three months, and the URL is currently ranking #3 for “marketing visuals,” which was the primary keyphrase. It also ranks for 35 other phrases according to Google Search Console.

Here you can see the impressions climbing.
google analytics semantic seo result
Increase of article impressions
It will likely continue to rise as the page begins to rank higher and rank for more phrases. I estimate this content will attract thousands of organic search visitors over the next four or five years.

It will be updated at least once during that time, repeating the process and improving the relevance using Semantic SEO tactics. One of the keys to content promotion is monitoring performance and updating content accordingly.

Are there any other benefits of semantic SEO?

Yes. Besides the impact on rankings and traffic, there is one amazing thing about this approach that surprised me when I first realized it.

Semantic SEO will make you a better writer.

If the goal of the search is to align with the goals of Google and help searchers find the best content for their query, then semantic SEO will help push you to make the best possible page. You have no right to rank if you haven’t made the best page on the topic.

Even if I had no concerns about rankings, even if I were writing a printed book, I would use this technique because it is a fantastic research strategy that gives you ideas for better content. It aligns your writing with the information needs of a broader audience. It is data-driven empathy.

Are there any problems or risks involved with semantic SEO?

Yes. The same risk that is common to a lot of SEO strategies.

The problem with any follow-the-leader approach (or any follow-the-algorithms-suggestions approach) is originality. You’re simply publishing what users and Google seem to want rather than posting what they may really need.

Semantic SEO is the opposite of thought leadership.

A leader promotes ideas that they feel are important, even if it doesn’t align with what visitors want (or search for). They take a position. They publish their personal views and strong opinions, even when those views contradict the current consensus. They can change the narrative.

Strong opinions were considered “essential” by the respondents to our survey about thought leadership marketing.
chart Thought Leadership Marketing
Research on leadership marketing
SEOs are really the opposite. Strong opinions are not essential.

SEOs seek to capture existing demand for a topic or keyword. They win visibility by aligning content with what people are already searching for. Publishing a new point of view that no one is searching for would be an SEO failure.

So the problem with semantic search tactics, and SEO in general, is that it creates a cycle of deeper content as content marketers compete, but a narrowing of topics. Anything that doesn’t appear in the above research may be excluded.

The best marketers understand both. They publish on topics people want and take a stand when necessary. Often, they find that search works for one and social works for the other.
I hope this article has helped you better understand semantic SEO. To get more inspiration along the way, follow Andy on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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