There are a good number of marketing websites laying out trends and best strategies for search engine optimization (SEO) in the coming year.
One that we would like to recommend that you focus on as part of your own medical marketing effort is semantic search.
To understand what semantic search is, first you need to understand the concept of semantics.
What are semantics?
Quite simply, semantics is the study of meanings, but Google offers this more detailed definition:
"...There are a number of branches and subbranches of semantics, including formal semantics, which studies the logical aspects of meaning, such as sense, reference, implication, and logical form, lexical semantics, which studies word meanings and word relations, and conceptual semantics, which studies the cognitive structure of meaning."
Semantics may seem like nitpicky wordplay to most people, but in order to understand how people use search engines (to, with any luck, find your medical practice), you first have to understand how they assign meaning to words. This is where semantic search comes into play.
What is semantic search?
When Google upgraded its search engine algorithms with the launch of Hummingbird last year, its users noticed a difference. Results from Google become far more relevant. This was their intention in launching the new algorithm, and is also the basis behind the concept of semantic search.
Crowd.com defines semantic search as a logic-based strategy which goes "beyond the ‘static’ dictionary meaning of a word or phrase to understand the intent of a searcher’s query within a specific context."
In other words, semantic search no longer just "guesses" at what people are searching for. It provides, instead, a more finely tuned "educated guess."
For a more complex definition and history of the origin of semantic search, Crazy Egg offers a nice breakdown here.
How could semantic search help a medical practice?
In the world of sleep medicine, a person may use the term "cpac" or "cpak" to search online for what polysomnographers and sleep physicians refer to as CPAP, for instance. When a person enters the wrong search terms, it is often because they don't understand the actual terms (or in this case, acronyms).
However, these might be the very patients your clinic could serve. Semantic search can skip literal interpretations of these queries by interpreting the search engine user's intentions. By doing so, it could more quickly unite a sleep medicine practice with patients who may have sleep apnea.
Also, semantic markup is a kind of on-page codification of your content that can make it even easier for Google to rank your links with more relevance. Schema.org is a collaborative on-page markup resource that helps its community to better structure its digital data. Truly, no small business with an online presence should overlook the many tips and tricks that Schema offers to amplify a website's SEO.
For instance, they can help you create "rich snippets" that push your website links higher in the ranks of search engines.
Search Engine Journal highlights a long list of ways to make semantic search work for you, including:
Creation of context for both Google and your readers
Use of "companion" keywords, synonyms, and linguistic variation
External linking for better "link juice"
Applications of metadata to facilitate wider social shareability of content
Semantic search is a byproduct of artificial intelligence
How cool is this? These new algorithms (part of Google's new RankBrain algorithm) can now rely on more than just keywords to make proper connections between users and the resources they seek (such as your medical practice).
Semantic search is an extension of artificial intelligence and machine learning that we can now witness hard at work inside the context of medical inbound marketing.
For instance, using the sleep apnea example from above:
Semantic search has the ability to track a search engine user's history in order to provide more accurate responses to their queries. If a user has previously searched "snoring" or "stops breathing in sleep," Google can now access this information so that, when they encounter a brand-new search from the person who queries, "sleep acne," the algorithm can infer that this user actual means "sleep apnea."
Google's latest, greatest ability to identify misspellings and suggest other options helps to clarify for users what they are actually looking for. The search engine has also become what Julia McCoy at Express Writers calls "the new Nazi in town" when it comes to grammar. Long gone are the days of just cranking out shabby content without the aid of a proofreader or copyeditor.
(You shouldn't be doing this anyway because it's terribly unprofessional. Up until now, bloggers have gotten away with it regardless, and in doing so, have artificially distorted their rankings. But Google is hip to it and, in 2017, they're putting its foot down. So should you.)
Semantic search is built to discern the intent behind a search. It literally seeks to identify a user's motivation by taking their queries at more than literal face value using predictive algorithms.
What is predictive technology?
You've probably already experienced how these tools work.
When you begin a text on your cellphone, and the phone bumps out some suggested phrases that you might intend (which are based on your personal usage history), that is working with predictive technology.
If you've ever felt like your phone or your search engine box knows you better than you know yourself, now you know why.
The benefits of mastering semantics
Semantic search provides more than just hyper-accurate results.
Semantic search leads to a new benefit, in which Google now pushes out images that best meet search terms. This could mean photographs, diagrams, infographics, or other visual information that could assume greater prominence on the search engine results page (SERP). As a healthcare blogger, this means you should really pay attention to the kinds of images you are posting with your blog to make sure they provide an accurate portrait of your content, and to the ways in which you tag your images so that they are indexed appropriately by Google.
Inbound marketing blogger, Return on Now, suggests that semantics search is not only here to stay, but a necessary strategy for effective content marketing for any kind of small business because it removes the barriers of literal keyword interpretation:
"[S]emantic matching is a requirement. People don’t want to have to think hard about exact match keywords when searching, or settle for sub-par SERPs. They just start typing and Google magically shows content that answers the need, even if the actual words being typed/searched don’t appear on the page!"
Careful selection of keywords is only part of the equation moving forward into 2017; what's equally (if not more) important is posting and prioritizing content that serves the needs of the reader. Write to their needs first, and your sincere efforts to provide the best, most up-to-date information that you can will be rewarded by better rankings in Google.
Also, commonly repeated advice becomes even more critical in 2017: avoid "keyword stuffing" and the use of spammy headlines, internal headers, and other previous strategies (like clickbait) for artificially improving your rankings with Google; the search engine goliath knows what you're up to with these tactics and will disqualify the worst offenders. You want to build trust with Google, not lose your ranks in their indices!
Just as trust is so important between a physician and a patient, the new trust landscape has created new priorities in the way Google measures and ranks fresh content.
The best way to garner trust with Google is to make every effort to garner trust with your potential readers. This means being authoritative, conversational, accessible, and sincere in your efforts to help others. Content (and, now, its context) continues to be king, in this regard.
For those practicing inbound marketing in Alaska, building trust means putting out the strongest, most sound messages possible in order to build patient trust at the local level.
This shouldn't be difficult if you're a successful clinician. These are all qualities of an in-clinic visit with a patient that any medical blog should also strive for with its content. The message online should seamlessly parallel the same message your patients receive when they talk to your front office, your nurses, your physicians, and your other allied healthcare professionals.
As McCoy says in Semantic Search in 2017: Looking at the Future of Content: "Algorithms were built not to discourage us, but to weed out the bad guys and give us a chance. The semantic search is continuing to go through the fine-tuning process, and it will remain an important component of content development in 2017."
Our main takeaway for 2017: While semantic search isn't new (it became a "thing" in 2016), it is incredibly important to respect these new algorithms, even if they seem a bit too technical (and if they are, all the more reason to hire a digital technologist to help maximize your blog's SEO).
Why? Your careful efforts at content marketing with semantics in mind stands to benefit not only patients looking for answers but your medical practice bottom line, as well.
Anyway, who wouldn't want this edge going into 2017?