How the semantic web (r)evolution is affecting the daily work of SEO experts?
In this article, you are going to meet the English SEO Exert Mark Bryce-Sharron and learn from his story why semantics is a game-changing science when applied to the optimization of websites and pages.
While Google is sharpening its semantic weapons with Hummingbird and RankBrain; the line between SEO, data analysis, and content organization is blurring. The Semantic web and schema.org markup are not new concepts for your average digital marketer, nowadays, however, having an understanding of both the theory and application is giving a selected few SEO agencies a competitive edge.
Meet Mark Bryce-Sharron
Founder and Director of the British digital agency Sussex SEO, Mark loves to keep his hands-on and his head learning. He manages clients’ search and social strategies, and he says about himself:
«SEO and social media fuel my passion for self-study as they present an endless exponential learning curve that few careers can match. I devote an average of one/two hours per day, monitoring industry data, IM forums and following case studies thus ensuring that I keep my skill set up to date so changes to such as Google’s Penguin update don’t cost my clients lost business.»
He founded his agency in 2006 with a very smart approach: instead of focusing on a range of keywords his clients should rank for, he works on developing a holistic digital strategy for each client to multiply the sources of traffic and maximize the brand exposure.
It’s a long path, instead of a bunch of tricks and easy patches, but – in the long run – it works, and it’s less sensitive to the latest algos from Mountain View.
We were curious to know the journey that brought Mark and his agency to a semantic approach and how it impacted the SEO operations for his clients.
3 signs and a plot twist
Back in 2014, Mark was already quite familiar with semantic strategies. Though, the enlightening comprehension of the great change that was coming forward was yet to come.
«We were kind of flying the big line at that point, and feeding the search engine what it wanted.» He says.
And how did you realize that something had changed forever in the SEO industry?
«At the beginning of this year (2017) something happened, I noticed a significant change in search results. No longer were web pages being displayed in order of relevance, rather the search engine was offering alternatives. The pattern was pretty easy to spot. Short tail keywords were returning results that offered the user a selection of choices e.g. cost, jobs, general information, legal information, and services. I had known this was coming but it honestly caught me by surprise.
«There had been rumblings that Hummingbird was the most significant update to Google’s core ranking algorithm back in 2014, three years later the penny really dropped for me. What suddenly became obvious was the search engine was now not simply attempting to present the user with results in order of relevance, it was attempting to calculate the user’s intent and provide answers. Where the search command did not supply enough information e.g. short tail keywords, the search engine would supply a montage of different types of results. As you narrow down your search criteria with more specific long tail or conversational queries the answer provided became more specific.
«Like many SEOs I’m self-taught and the way I learn is by testing and talking to other industry professionals (usually in the pub over a pint or several). Networking is key, if you don’t exchange Ideas with others your methodology stagnates. One particular drinking buddy (tentacle.ai) works with big data and artificial intelligence, armed with his laptop and a pint of craft beer he showed me an AI chatbot he was working on. As he explained its inner workings I was surprised to find we were using that same terminology e.g. parsers/classifier algorithms.
«Something clicked, Google was using AI. Rankbrain wasn’t just vapourware it was actively being used to serve improved search engine results.
«Another contact, Robert Adler (BOFU2U), had previously introduced to me to the concept of creating entities within a site and semantic linking using anchor text and the schema.org sameAs attribute.
«At this point, I had an idea of the components required for a case study but needed a mechanism to deploy the code.
«My SEO plugin of choice is SEO Ultimate, it blows Yoast out of the water and contains a set of modules that allow users to inject code into pages. I was after something that could inject the same bit of code info multiple page headers. I reached out to Jeffrey Smith, the founder of SEO Ultimate. He told me that he was partnering with WordLift to offer advanced semantic SEO to his clients and he lead me to your plugin. I took a look at what you guys were doing and yes, it blew my mind: so I took you for a test drive, WordLift provided everything I needed and everything I wanted. I’ve tried WordLift, after spending significant time on content to be sure the copy was good and it wasn’t duplicated, and – sure enough! – things started to move very positively.»
So, how are you using WordLift for your clients?
«There are a number of approaches.
- Install and go.
- Install, go and add unique content to vocabulary pages.
- Plan a vocabulary by trawling the semantic web, seed existing website copy with your vocabulary (LSI keywords), Order content, install the plugin and replace the vocabulary with original content/create new entities within the plugin.
«A strong starting point is a vocabulary of 120 pages. My vocabulary pages start at 1000 words in length and include question, answers, statistics and I keep building them out.»
«Of course, I don’t just go through and take every single entity the NLP AI extracts, I pick things making some decisions based on common sense: is this entity relevant for my website? And that’s how I build my vocabulary.
«Now, if I just put WordLift on my side, and don’t add any extra copy to those vocabulary pages it still begins to move, but when we start to add links to the pages – that’s when it really started to get interesting.»
A smooth, gentle traffic uplift
Until today, Mark has used WordLift on 10 different websites of his clients. Quite a vantage point from where to see if the results that WordLift brings to traffic metrics are real, measurable, and repeatable.
«What I noticed is that when you deploy the plugin you get a steady very desirable growth. Depending on how you use the plugin it will depend the results you get: you do have to cope with strategic content research and content creation, to get the most out of it, and also you have to be aware that somehow Google changes, like RankBrain.
«Some people say RankBrain is just a machine learning algorithm, but I see that it is virtualizing some pieces of language of certain types of language: often phrases, or questions, or propositions, or answers… So the key thing you offer is semi-automatically generating schema.org markup, which has a very very smooth potential to website’s use and Google knows it, because Google is gently starting to push the next generation. With the coding, there is just the ability to remove any ambiguity from a piece of text and to help Google work less hard to calculate some meaning behind the text on the page. – I don’t use the word understands, because I don’t believe AI understands at this particular point in time… but it certainly does a very good job in processing the meaning.
«With WordLift what you see is a slow, gentle, constant climate. So it doesn’t happen overnight, it happens in the space of three months. It is like a gentle trigger.»
Wrap-up & lessons learned
When the semantic web meets AI the impact on the web is huge. Think about the effect of RankBrain on a single search, and multiply it for all the existing industries where SEO is relevant for business.
SEO Specialist can’t ignore those transformations – they have to stay on top of them and to find new techniques and reliable tools that really work.
If there is something that Mark’s story teaches us, is that in an ever-changing context, such as the web is, digital pros need to upgrade continually and to sharpen their weapons while the search engines are doing the same on a larger scale.