18 May 2016 | admin

How Natural Language Processing is changing SEO

It is well-accepted in the digital marketing industry, especially in organic search, that the focus is shifting from keyword-based strategies online to ones that focus on fulfilling intent.  The stimulus for this has come from Google itself and its improving ability to understand the human language. The appearance of Knowledge Graph boxes, Answer Boxes, Featured Snippets, Local pack results etc. are not a coincidence. These are clues to the search engines’ evolution in Natural Language Processing (NLP).

What does Natural Language Processing in Google results look like?

As a user, have you ever wondered how Google is able to return results that precisely answered your question despite you not typing those exact keywords? Think in terms of consecutive searches you might have made, when you felt as if the search engine has successfully read your mind.

NLP google sugges

If you have noticed those instances then you’re looking at the Natural Language Processing capabilities of the search engine at play. Recently, Google launched RankBrain which is a machine learning algorithm that has extended the capabilities of its Natural Language Processing and these extended capabilities are allowing the search engine to guess a lot more accurately what users are potentially looking for. This intelligent behaviour is specifically allowing Google to answer queries that it has never actually been asked – these are often the very long statements in Google Suggest, as seen in the screenshot above.

So what is Natural Language Processing?

Natural language process (NLP) as a domain crosses over the fields of Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence, and Linguistics. It is mainly concerned with human-computer interaction, enabling computers to process information based on natural human language input. In the past, NLP involved the hand coding of large sets of rules manually, however, this has changed radically with the further merging of the fields of machine learning and data science. Now NLP algorithms are heavily based on machine learning and data science – a development that has morphed into Google’s RankBrain. Currently at Google there is a special emphasis on unsupervised learning which allows machines to naturally learn the nuances of the human language.



Why is Natural Language Processing important for SEO?

A brief look at some of the biggest algorithm changes made by Google in the last five years will make it clear that the search engine has been pushing and subliminally training webmasters to focus on fulfilling intent rather than chase keywords. Here is a brief list to refresh your memory,

  • Increase in (keyword not provided)
  • Over-optimisation a.k.a Penguin penalties
  • Panda updates
  • Hummingbird
  • Growing Knowledge Graph database
  • Mobilegeddon
  • Google quality updates
  • Google core updates
  • The RankBrain



All of the above are further complemented by the fact that some of the biggest acquisitions by Google in recent past have been in the field of Artificial intelligence.

What this means for SEOs is that they will have to run traditional and new age optimisation techniques in parallel.  Traditional techniques such as optimising page titles, optimising content, writing blogs on phrase or broad match queries and acquiring links etc still deliver results. However, in 2016 and beyond, SEOs will have to consider including NLP-favouring tactics alongside the above mentioned more ‘traditional’ techniques.

With that view, some of the factors that SEOs will need to consider are;

  • What device is the query being searched on?
  • Is the search a typed or a voice search?
  • Does the location of the searcher have a role to play?
  • Is this a factual query?
  • What were the previous searches?

What can brands do?

In order to stay current, a successful SEO strategy will be the one which finds the synergy between the traditional tactics and the newer intent based NLP conducive optimisation techniques. Below are some of the basics to consider in any current SEO strategy.

#1 Ensure mobile friendly interactions

Mobile is at the core of Google’s strategies when it comes to fulfilling user experience through the use of NLP. Drawing inspiration from the search engine, a brand should ensure that their target audience has the best experience of the brand on mobile devices too. Using page speed and mobile friendliness test tools provided by Google itself will be a good start.

#2 Rewrite existing content to cater for factual queries

You may notice currently that for purely factual queries such as ‘laser hair removal cost’ Google returns featured snippets such as the one below;

Featured snippet cost

As for sitelinks, there is very little control over this right now for brands. However, you definitely increase your chances of beating the competition if you identify pieces of content on your site that can be better represented in a more structured manner.

Content types that are typically well suited for featured snippets are;

  • Listicles
  • Cost tables
  • Quotes
  • Questions

#3 Optimise for humans and not search engines

This is a time honoured tactic. Instead of obsessing over multiple keywords in your page titles, image alts and headers, focus on fulfilling the purpose of the user on your site.

#4 Utilise all your available structured data opportunities

Sometimes it’s not possible for brands to add all the available rich snippet tags, however for SEO you must try to implement any that are possible.

‘Structured data markup is a standard way to annotate your content so machines can understand it’. – Google

In the above line the word ‘understand’ is the key and is directly connected with Google’s push for NLP.


#5 Create content that enhances your user experience

Some of the most engaging, search friendly and quickly visible content online is that which is instantly usable to a user.  For a brand this can be achieved by  selecting elements of content that can be presented in the following formats;

  • Tables
  • Calculators
  • Finders
  • Sliders etc.

Of course, always make sure that any such content is directly in line with your objective of improving your user experience and that it isn’t simply reformatted to cater to Google.

The rising influence of Natural Language Processing will continue to be visible on Google pages. As brand owners and webmasters, the sooner you adapt to this shift the more likely you are going to be staying ahead of the curve. Future proofing your website while staying ahead of the competition is the sweet spot that every marketer is aiming to reach and aligning your tactics with NLP is, in SEO terms, definitely the way forward.