Semantic Search Myths Debunked | Using Keywords to Chase SEO Rankings

Why keywords, search rankings, and on-page optimization are still important for SEO in the age of Google Hummingbird

Semantic search myths are rampant now that Google has released its new search engine algorithm code-named Hummingbird. In fact, so many small businesses are confused and getting misinformation from web designers that a colleague, Kathleen Sharo of Web Words Matter, asked me to write this article to set a few things straight.

The main goal of the semantic search is to improve search results by understanding searcher intent and by generating more relevant results. This is also referred to as contextual search.

For example, you are on vacation in Miami and need to find an alternate hotel. So, your search for “hotels” on your smartphone and a list of hotels in Miami appear in the search results. The search engine has not just used the keyword “hotels” but also used the GPS location of your phone to provide you with information that is more relevant to you.

In fact, the way we search now is more flexible. With voice commands such as Apple’s Siri or OK Google, you can just ask your phone or your car: “will it rain today” and you’ll get a local weather report.  Type in “AA 1234″ and the current flight status for an American Airlines flight will show at the top of the search results. Or maybe you say: “OK Google: Where is the Statue of Liberty?” followed by “Who designed it?” and your computer displays relevant Google search results.

In all of these examples, some type of context is implied and acted upon by the search engine to provide relevant information.  In essence, this is semantic search. If you’re looking for more information on Google Hummingbird’s semantic search, this Search Engine Land article is a good starting place: FAQ: All About The New Google “Hummingbird” Algorithm.

Now, here are two common SEO myths with regards to semantic search and use of keywords on websites.

Myth #1: Search Keywords are Dead

No, keywords are not dead. Using the proper words on your website in the right places gives “hints” to Google and other search engines to what your web page or blog post is about. These “hints” are what helps define the “context” of your web content.

Using keywords more strategically is the best approach. You also want to use contextual longer tail keywords so that when people do complex webs searches for your topic that your web page or article will appear in the proper search results. If you fail to provide these hints or if you use misleading keywords, then your content may not meet the contextual requirements for your desired keywords. For more information on using keywords on your website, see our articles on Web Content Writing Tips.

Another complicating and confusing factor here is the September 2013 Google decision to hide search keywords from Google Analytics. Just because Google is reporting all keywords in Google Analytics as Not Provided, doesn’t mean keywords aren’t important. In fact, you can still use Google Analytics Landing Pages data and Webmaster Tools Search Queries data to get an idea of what keywords people use to land on your website. This Not Provided change is also referred to as “secure search”.

This Search Engine Watch article has more information: Google Keyword ‘(Not Provided)’: How to Move Forward.

Myth #2: Search Engine Rankings are not Important

There are so many articles floating around about the importance of search engine rankings. One thing many people get hung up on is ranking #1 for specific keywords. In the SEO world, there is no way to guarantee rankings. But the facts show that higher search engine rankings lead to more traffic. Here are some stats from a study:

Google Result Page Rank

Average Traffic Share







So, this means that the top 3 search results get over 60% of the traffic. I’d say that’s pretty significant and important.

With semantic search, search ranking factors are still used in the algorithms that determine what content to deliver in search results. By building on your keyword “hints” to search engines, you can maximize the chances of ranking higher for different combinations of keyword phrases that you are targeting.

A periodic review of search ranking reports can give you an indicator of your ranking for phrases you are trying to target. You shouldn’t just rely on ranking reports however as these can vary greatly depending on how the rankings were calculated. Sudden changes in search rankings can indicate a problem that warrants further investigation. I’ve shared some insights in one of my earlier blog posts: How to Tell if Organic SEO is Working Video.

There is more to ranking factors than just keywords. Searchmetrics does a great job of analyzing ranking factors in their annual study. Here’s a link to the 2021 version: The Ranking Factors 2021. Moz also publishes a similar study: 2021 Search Engine Ranking Factors.

Overcoming the Semantic Search Myths with SEO Best Practices

I hope that this article has shed some light on semantic search and some of the things you still need to be working on with regards to organic SEO. The best advice I can give you is to not give up on following SEO best practices for your website and just build on these practices when Google and the other search engines evolve their algorithms in the future.