Clarifying core semantic SEO concepts


In this article I’ve curated some of the most commonly misunderstood elements of entity and semantic SEO, aiming to clear the fog around them.

Here’s our roadmap:

  • What are the differences between entities, topics and keywords?
  • How do entities affect keyword research?
  • What is a topical map?
  • How do you do on-page optimizations in the entity paradigm?
  • What role does schema markup play in entity SEO?
  • What are semantic networks and how do you build them?

What are the differences between entities, topics and keywords?

One of the most common areas of confusion I’ve seen when discussing entities is what differentiates keywords, topics and entities from each other. 

Because entities, keywords and topics are intertwined elements in the vast landscape of SEO, it can often be difficult to truly tease apart each definition. 

Entities

These are the foundational concepts or things in content. At a basic level, entities can be singular nouns, like “chocolate cake” or “iPhone.” 

But they can also represent more complex named concepts, such as events like “The Olympic Games” or places like “Mount Everest.” 

In SEO’s semantic framework, entities are unique, identifiable concepts consistent across various texts or contexts. They aren’t tied to specific phrases but represent broader ideas. 

Within a keyword phrase like “delicious chocolate cake recipe,” “chocolate cake” is the entity. 

On a larger scale, for a website about tech reviews, entities such as “smartphones”, “laptops”, and “gadgets” guide its overarching themes, signaling to search engines the primary subject matter.

Keywords

These are the specific phrases or terms users type into a search engine. They’re the bridge between the user’s intent and the content they’re trying to find. 

Keywords can encapsulate one or more entities, reflecting what users are actively seeking. 

For instance, while “iPhone” is an entity, a keyword that encompasses it might be “iPhone 12 Pro Max review.” 

Topics

Topics are thematic areas or categories that encapsulate one or more entities. Think of a topic as an umbrella under which multiple entities can reside. 

For example, under the topic “Smart Home Technology,” entities could include “Google Nest Hub,” “smart thermostats,” and “IoT security.”

Here’s a summary of their key distinctions:

Scope

  • Topics are broad and can encompass multiple entities and even various keywords. 
  • Entities are more specific and focused.
  • Keywords are the specific searchable terms related to both.

Hierarchical relationship

  • Entities usually fall under topics. 
  • Keywords can align with either entities or topics or sometimes both.

SEO

  • Topics guide your broader content strategy.
  • Entities help focus and refine that strategy.
  • Keywords serve as the target for actual search queries.

Intersection

  • Topics can be used to form content clusters.
  • Entities and keywords serve to refine and specify the content within those clusters.

User intent

  • Topics guide the user through their informational journey.
  • Entities provide specific answers.
  • Keywords can be crafted to meet specific user queries.

Semantic networks (in the context of SEO)

  • Topics often serve as nodes in semantic networks that connect related entities.
  • Keywords serve as the pathways that lead users to those nodes.

The relationship between topics and keywords manifests in how keywords help flesh out the various aspects of a given topic. 

In a well-structured content strategy, the keywords you target should naturally fall under the umbrella of your chosen topics. 

This ensures that your content is relevant and comprehensive and satisfies a range of user intents related to your topic.

In essence, topics serve as the overarching themes that guide the scope and direction of your content, providing a high-level focus. 

Entities further sharpen this focus, giving search engines like Google a nuanced lens to understand the core essence of your content, both on micro and macro levels. 

Keywords, meanwhile, refine and drill down into specific facets of your overarching topics, making your content discoverable to users with particular queries related to those topics.

How do entities affect keyword research?

Traditionally, SEO strategies were rooted in keyword research, focusing primarily on keyword difficulty and search volume. 

Specialists would aim for low-hanging fruit – terms a site could realistically rank for – before moving on to more competitive keywords. 

While effective in the past, this approach has become less optimal due to evolving search algorithms. 

Today, a keyword-centric methodology risks creating disjointed topics across a website, undermining the development of topical authority.

Imagine if topics occupied a physical space where some topics are proximal while others are distant. 

In this space, “bowling shoes” would be closer to “bowling” than “fun nights out with the family” – however, “fun nights out with the family” might not be far off. 

This is how advanced language models perceive language. They generate graphical representations to discern topical relevance.

If your site has a scattered topic structure, jumping from one loosely related topic to another (as with ad hoc keyword targeting), Google might find it challenging to decipher your website’s core intent. 

This could lead to a decline in ranking or just an inability to be competitive for the keywords that really matter to your business.

While targeting low-hanging fruit in terms of keywords is still viable, it doesn’t necessarily establish a website as an authority in a specific niche. 

To optimize content in this era, we need to consider two key aspects:

Density of the subject matter

Your goal should be to cover content that is graphically close together and to do it better than any competitor. Assess the competition. 

Determine which sub-niche within your realm you can outshine others in. Can you truly be the go-to expert on the subjects you target? 

Logical subject expectations

Creating content that naturally aligns with your site’s objectives is crucial for SEO success. 

I often see SEO professionals broadening their content scope excessively or employing AI to cover every conceivable angle of their subject matter, which misses the mark entirely. 

For instance, imagine a site focused on “Kettlebell Workouts for Beginners.”

Adding an article about the history of kettlebell design, while interesting, may not directly benefit the site’s primary audience, who are looking for actionable workout tips. 

Entity SEO is not a free pass to cover every topic under the sun. It’s imperative to prioritize the content that resonates with your site’s main objectives and aligns with Google’s understanding of your expertise. 

In other words, before you delve into the nuances of kettlebell design, ensure you’ve already covered the basics your audience is actively searching for. 

Only expand to broader topics when you’ve observed the search engine sees you as an expert in your sub-niche (this is usually observable by top rankings and quick rankings of new articles). 

Remember: Establishing oneself as a topical authority is an ever-evolving challenge. Success hinges on thorough research, pinpointing subtopics ripe for deeper exploration – areas others might have overlooked. 

Equally critical is identifying content clusters within competitor domains, not just to replicate but to outdo.

However, stay attuned to their backlink profiles. Gauging your ability to match or even outpace these external factors is crucial for a realistic strategy.


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What is a topical map?

As we discussed above, SEO was often synonymous with keyword research and this was stage one of an SEO effort. 

Marketers would scour the web, hunting for keywords promising high search volumes and low competition. 

The strategy was simple: find a high-potential keyword, create content around it, rinse and repeat. 

This tactic was more about sniping possibilities than building a holistic digital presence. 

The aim was to grab those low-hanging fruits – isolated keywords that could easily be targeted to drive traffic. 

The idea was you’d build a base of ranking content and then slowly advance to more difficult terms over time. This approach was ultimately keyword-centric.

The cluster-centric approach 

In my opinion, an evolved SEO strategy should focus on strategic decisions around clusters of content and not exclusively aimed at individual keywords.

Enter topical maps – a vital tool in modern SEO that helps you better visualize and plan your content strategy. 

A topical map is essentially a visual representation of your primary subject and how it connects to various sub-topics and themes. 

Think of it as a spider diagram or a mind map. At the center of this map, you have your main subject – the overarching topic your site focuses on. 

Branching out from this central node are related sub-topics, which serve as the pillars supporting your main subject. 

Each sub-topic can further divide into specific themes or even narrower facets, providing a layered, organized structure to your content.

Imagine your central topic is “Basketball.” 

From there, branches like “Basketball Techniques,” “Basketball Equipment,” and “NBA Teams” emerge. 

Dive deeper and from “Basketball Techniques,” you have “Free Throws,” “Dribbling” and more. 

Interspersed are your keywords, suggesting content angles and user intent.

Instead of focusing on individual keywords, you’re now looking at clusters – groups of related content pieces. 

These clusters allow you to paint a comprehensive picture of a subject, making your site a one-stop hub for audiences. 

When assessing competition and volume, the focus shifts from individual keywords to these clusters, looking at the aggregate potential rather than singular opportunities. 

Here, your focus becomes analyzing the landscape for what clusters of content your competition has and looking for pockets of where you can outperform their clusters instead of their keywords.

The benefits of thinking in clusters

This shift from keywords to clusters offers multiple advantages:

Depth and breadth

  • By covering related topics under one umbrella, you provide both in-depth insights and a broad overview, catering to various user intents. 

Authority

  • A cluster approach signals to search engines that you’re not just skimming the surface. You’re diving deep, establishing your authority in a niche. This triggers search engines to rank you higher, oftentimes for terms that you have weaker external factors than the competition on. 

Flexibility

  • Clusters allow for easier content expansion. If a new trend emerges within a cluster, you can seamlessly integrate it without disrupting your site’s structure.

Keyword clustering tools can be game-changers when building topical maps. They help you identify when a keyword deserves its standalone topic page or if it fits better within a broader topic.

In essence, the older approach was cherry-picking good keywords and using their success to propel your SEO forward. 

The new approach is to select clusters of dense content that establish authority. When done correctly, you can trigger a topical authority boost and circumvent the need for superior external SEO factors.

How do you do on-page optimizations in the entity paradigm?

Now that we’ve seen how entities can be factored into your high-level strategy and content roadmap via topical maps, let’s go through questions people ask about the actual implementation of entities on your site. 

On-page SEO and entities: What’s changed?

If you’ve engaged in SEO for any time, a notable change in your Search Console query report is that your pages often rank for keywords not directly mentioned within their content. 

Entities and the knowledge graph have transformed Google’s grasp on language. Previously, search results predominantly showcased pages that explicitly mentioned a keyword. 

But now, with the deeper understanding provided by entities, Google draws from a wider pool, considering pages that address topics in a related sphere. This leads Google to favor more comprehensive content pieces. 

This shift introduced what I term “authority pages.” These are content-rich pages saturated with entity relationships, designed to answer many potential user queries. Such pages aggregate the essence of what previously required several pages. 

As you develop these authority pages, AI tools can be instrumental. 

The fundamental procedure involves a few key steps:

  • First, utilize tools or methods like TF-IDF (Term Frequency-Inverse Document Frequency), RAKE (Rapid Automatic Keyword Extraction), or keyword extraction techniques to pull out crucial keyword phrases or entities from articles that already rank highly in your target area. This step is crucial because it helps you establish the minimum subject matter and terms that Google seems to view as essential for ranking in that particular topic space.
  • Once you have identified this baseline, the next objective is to go beyond it. Your aim should be to not just match the top-ranking articles in terms of entities and keywords but to exceed them by introducing new entity relationships or facets of the topic that haven’t been extensively covered. The idea is to offer a more comprehensive, insightful piece that adds value beyond what’s currently available, thereby enhancing your chances of being viewed as an authority on the subject by search engines.

I explore these concepts and tools in greater depth in How ChatGPT can help you optimize your content for entities, where I break down the nitty-gritty of how to maximize your topical authority in the SEO landscape.

What role does schema markup play in entity SEO?

The concept of entities is crucial in the world of SEO, serving as the focal points around which content is structured. 

Leveraging schema to highlight these entities can provide search engines with an even clearer understanding of your page’s subject matter and context. 

Schema is a tool often underutilized in the SEO community. 

While many stick to generic schema setups, custom options like “Mentions schema” can vastly improve how Google understands your content. 

Mentions schema allows you to specify what or who your page mentions, and can even link to authoritative sources like Wikipedia for greater clarity. 

Here’s how to implement it. 

Step 1: Identify your core entity

Before you begin implementing schema, identify the core entity or entities around which your content revolves. 

For example, if you’re writing a comprehensive guide about “Mediterranean Diet,” your core entity is the Mediterranean Diet.

Step 2: Use mentions schema

Utilize mentions schema to specify additional entities related to your core entity. 

If you’re discussing the Mediterranean Diet, you might mention entities like “Olive Oil,” “Fish,” and “Exercise.”

{
  "@context": "
  "@type": "Article",
  "mentions": ({
    "@type": "Thing",
    "name": "Olive Oil"
  },
  {
    "@type": "Thing",
    "name": "Fish"
  },
  {
    "@type": "Thing",
    "name": "Exercise"
  })
}

Step 3: Use ‘SameAs’ for authoritative sources

When you mention other entities, use the “SameAs” attribute to link to their authoritative sources, such as Wikipedia pages or scientific studies.

{
  "mentions": {
    "@type": "Thing",
    "name": "Olive Oil",
    "sameAs": "
  }
}

Step 4: Visualize using tools

Tools like Schema Zone can help you visualize your schema structure. 

Plug in your URL to see if your schema correctly highlights your core and related entities.

Step 5: Test and monitor

Use Google’s Schema Testing Tool to make sure your schema is correctly implemented. 

After that, monitor your site’s performance to see how the enhanced schema affects your search rankings.

By consciously implementing schema to outline the entities within your content, you’re making your content more understandable to search engines and paving the way for better SEO performance. 

It’s an essential step to make your content not just readable but also “understandable” by search engines.

What are semantic networks and how do you build them?

The importance of a well-structured SEO strategy cannot be overstated, especially as search engine algorithms continue to evolve. 

While topical maps provide an initial framework defining which clusters of content you should focus on, they only scratch the surface. 

Enter semantic content networks – a refined, holistic approach that ties together the multiple facets of your content into a unified whole.

What is a semantic content network?

A semantic content network is a sophisticated way to structure and interconnect your website’s content beyond isolated pages and lone keywords. 

At its core, it’s an organizational model that serves as a roadmap for interconnecting your content. 

Rather than marking standalone pages or individual keywords, you’ll be plotting out clusters of interrelated content, usually in the form of internal links and hierarchical relationships. 

How does it build on traditional models?

If you’re familiar with the “hub and spoke” model, you’ll find similarities here. 

In this enhanced model, central themes or “hubs” serve as the anchor points, with related sub-topics or “spokes” branching out. 

What sets it apart is its keen focus on logic and accessibility, ensuring that both users and search engines can easily understand the architecture and flow of your content.

Why do semantic content networks matter?

In today’s SEO landscape, search engines like Google are shifting from a narrow focus on keyword counts to a broader understanding of content, context, and semantic relationships. 

A semantic content network helps you adapt to this advanced landscape, ensuring your content is not just easily discoverable, but also resonates with this new level of search engine understanding. 

By adopting this approach, you’re creating more than just a search-optimized website. 

You’re constructing a logically interconnected web of content that enhances the user experience and aligns perfectly with modern search engines’ intelligent, semantic capabilities. 

This is the future of SEO, and it’s a future where clarity, coherence, and connectivity reign supreme.

Prioritizing entities and semantic relationships in SEO

In SEO, we’ve transitioned from a narrow keyword-focused approach to an interconnected, holistic view encompassing entities, topics, and the broader semantic relationship between them. 

Entities, being the foundational concepts within content, help search engines understand the context and essence of a page beyond mere keyword repetitions. 

As we pivot to this enriched understanding, the importance of topical maps and semantic content networks becomes clear. 

They’re not mere tools; they’re strategies to better align with the evolving nature of search engines and, in turn, enhance user experience. 

A coherent, logical content web is not just the future of SEO – it’s the present. 

Recognizing and harnessing this shift can pave the way for more meaningful, impactful online experiences.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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