How Natural Language Processing Has Changed SEO


Have you ever wondered how Google, Facebook and Pinterest seem to get you the results you’re looking for even when you don’t type the words exactly right? If you have, you have probably inadvertently seen natural language processing at work.

During the last few years, natural language processing has come to change the way the web works in a fundamental way: shifting discovery of content from an explicit keyword based search to discovery based on context and intent. This is life changing for the SEO professional.

“Fundamentally, it’s the difference between ‘give me what I said’ and ‘give me what I want.'”
—Amit Singhal

A brief history of natural language processing

Natural language processing, or NLP, is a concept that had its genesis in philosophy and matured in the realm of linguistics. For decades, NLP did not make its way into mass market applications because of technical limitations. One of these was the need for “supervised learning,” which is humans teaching computers how to resolve conflicts of understanding. The last two decades have seen significant advances in the field of computer science. These advances include the development of semantic web technology and machine learning. Together, they have made NLP a reality for many more uses, like the applications we rely on with our mobile phones.

How does NLP impact web searches and SEO trends?

Because it’s the first search engine that most people think about, let’s begin with Google search.

Google has at least two ranking algorithms in place that run in parallel. The first is the traditional PageRank algorithm. The second algorithm is often referred to as the “mobile” algorithm. It covers many new factors, including the context of your query as well as the search terms.

Most SEOs worth their salt know that the original PageRank algorithm has driven many SEO strategies that include on-page optimizations, like page titles and the pursuit of backlinks. These are still effective mechanisms for surfacing content, particularly for long tail topics.

Google’s newer algorithm looks to determine your search intent from several factors. These include:

  • What type of device you are using (desktop, mobile phone, tablet)
  • Are you typing or using your voice
  • Number of consecutive searches
  • What else people are searching for
  • Related topics

For more information on some of these new types of searches, you can check out my article on The Future of Search.

Research shows that topics are more important than keywords

What about everything you’ve been hearing about it being time to start looking at topics instead of keywords? Topic based approaches take into account the fact that we all think differently and might not be using the same words to find things when searching the internet. They also tend to support searches by less sophisticated users.

This advice is grounded in real research. Take for example this 2012 study by Yvonne Kammerer and Maja Linke. The researchers conducted a laboratory study with 21 children, ages 8 to 10 years old, to determine whether the use of natural-language queries would lead to more successful outcomes for the children when searching the Internet with Google. Their results demonstrated the advantages of natural language queries both quantitatively and qualitatively.

The group had a few key findings:

  1. The majority of children who used natural language searches such as, “Do all kangaroos have a pouch?” answered questions correctly.
  2. Children who used keywords tended to start searches with one or two unspecific search terms. Because their results were too broad, they scanned and refined the results in order to eliminate unwanted information. This usually leads to searches with a more specific wording.
  3. Children who had not used the internet before tended to use natural language search.
  4. Children who were experienced internet users tended to use the keyword based approach.

I encourage you to look closely and you will find the “topics over keywords” approach being adopted in Google, Facebook Search, Apple Spotlight, Amazon, and Pinterest Guided Search, among others.

Things in motion tend to stay in motion

It shouldn’t be a surprise that mobile devices have introduced a number of new challenges for search engines. It is the rapid expansion of mobile device usage that is driving the latest search developments.

Specifically, the users are often on-the-go, perhaps walking or driving, while conducting their search. The context of their activity becomes just as important as the words they enter.

Search engines need to work a bit harder to make sure they capture the intent of their users. For this reason, natural language processing is their friend.

Design search for utility

Some of today’s most engaging and search friendly content achieves its status by being very usable. It is worth considering the format you choose for your content so it can be put into action quickly.

I will never turn my nose up at a good, old-fashioned guide post. In fact, you’ll see gorgeous mobile-friendly examples of this mainstay content format coming out regularly from Eater and Houzz.

But can we go further? Google is continuously innovating with its native content units to provide an experience that transcends search results to fulfill the user need. Take for example this search for the “cheapest restaurants in dc” (pictured below).

Some brands, like Momondo, create incredible resources like this Trip Finder to help people find their dream getaway. Ultimately, you will need to decide if creating an experience like that is the best thing for your brand or if it’s better to instrument your website data to play well with Google’s approach.

Tips for making content marketing more effective for natural language search

There is not going to be a single recommendation for every business to follow for optimizing their site for the new world of natural language search. To keep things simple, I would recommend the following tips when crafting content with good SEO in mind:

  • Plan content around topics and vary the use of related terms rather than focusing on one single keyword.
  • Design for mobile consumption.
  • Deliver the most useful format for your visitor.
  • Liberally link to other authoritative and related resources.

If you would like to go a bit deeper, and learn more about developing richer content for your audience, a great place to start would be to follow my tips for creating 10x content. A copy of my presentation on the topic from TrackMaven’s Spark 2015 conference is embedded below.

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