Entities. Semantic SEO. The Knowledge Graph. These are all essential components of modern SEO.
Despite all that has been written about entity SEO, it is still a relatively new field. Many possibilities abound, and these are made worse by the fact that there are few solid SEO techniques available that are easy to scale.
For most agencies, scaling is the challenging part, because an agency needs to be able to rely on its scaling capabilities in order to deliver the best possible results to the customer while at the cost the customer paid for.
Aside from scaling, let’s talk about the approach of modern vs. traditional SEO for a bit.
Modern SEO vs. Traditional SEO
Traditional SEO relies only on keywords and the user intent behind those keywords. Using two specific attributes such as this is a relatively simple approach.
Simplicity is fine. When the SEO approach calls for it.
But, modern SEO digs deeper.
Modern SEO digs deeper into the specific relationships between entities and their keyword synonyms, along with entities that correspond to the main entity you may be targeting.
Entity-focused SEO does exactly what it sounds like: it shifts the focus onto entities and their relationships to each other, instead of just singular keywords.
Keywords vs. Entities
When it comes to SEO, keywords are specific words and phrases that a user enters into the search bar on any search engine, oftentimes referred to as a query.
The query is made up of search terms that a user may be searching for, hence the moniker of keywords.
Since the dawn of the world wide web, keywords have formed the basis of all SEO referencing methods.
The ultimate goal of keyword or entity research is to ensure that the page that’s being optimized will show up in the search results as high as possible for one or more phrases.
One issue with keywords is that they are ambiguous by nature— a single keyword may reference more than one subject. The word cache, for example, could refer to the cache of a web browser, or a private weapons cache.
Sometimes, a seed keyword is not enough. You have to go deeper several levels to get more specific and find that user intent.
Which brings us to our next topic: user intent.
The user intent behind a keyword is also a consideration. Whether it’s informational, commercial, transactional, or navigational.
What is an Entity in SEO?
In SEO, an entity is defined as anything that is specifically definable—a noun, place, thing. Unique and distinguishable are among the characteristics that define a valid entity.
An entity does not have to be physical in nature. It can be an idea, or even monetary currency.
What matters is that it is differentiated from other words and phrases and is unique on its own.
What Does This All Mean, Exactly?
Tying together entities, keywords, content, links, and all that good stuff is not an exercise in futility. In fact, it’s something that is quite easy when you know what it is you’re trying to do and what you’re looking for.
To deepen our investigation, we’re going to take a look at this patent study from Dave Davies.
While it is a study that’s around 5 years old, it forms much of the basis of modern entity relationships and how we think about them. Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that SEO changes in the last five years have likely made this outdated, but it’s worth reading for the thought nuggets alone.
There are four factors that are involved in the ranking of entities, based on the patent discussed: US Patent No. US 2015/0331866 A1:
These factors include:
Dave notes in his article:
Unstructured Data References
Dave also makes note of a 2016 patent, in which there are additional ideas regarding entities that are just as critical:
There is an entity database. To save Google having to process the top results every time a query is run, a database exists that simply stores entities and their connections. Think of it like a link database, but for entities.
Entities are ranked by a quality score that may include freshness, previous selections by users, incoming links, and possibly outgoing links. Remember, this is just the patent – don’t run out and link to every site you can find. I find that part unlikely to carry weight outside of very specific situations.
When a query for an entity is conducted, the relevance of other entities is determined for the result. To illustrate, for the query [dave davies], Google needs to determine which entity metrics relate most importantly to it. The entity of birth date is deemed important, the entity of his brother, his band and a number of others are important enough to make the knowledge panel.
That he was born eighth in his family is not deemed important enough. This is not to imply the importance of entities relates only to knowledge panels, just that it’s one of the clearest visual illustrations of it.
There are methods for Google to infer context for multiple entities with the same name. To use their example, there is Philadelphia the city, the cream cheese, and the movie. If I ask a “where” question I would be referring to the city, “who acted in” would be the movie, and “what goes good with” would be the food. The answer, by the way, is lox, red onion, and capers.
This technique allows Google to determine entities and their relationship when data is unstructured (referring to information that either does not have a pre-defined data model or is not organized in a pre-defined manner).
This method also allows Google to learn new entities.”
Common Examples of Entities
You may not know this, but you run into entities every day.
For example, you may find that Bill Slawski is an entity known for publishing patents.
Marie Haynes is an entity known for publishing anything and everything about E-A-T, or the Quality Raters Guidelines.
Lily Ray is an entity known for publishing deep dives into winners vs. losers of the Google Algorithm Updates.
Brian Dean is yet another entity who is known for publishing material about link building, and so on.
Structured Data and How it Fits Into This
How, exactly, would you begin to think about structured data and how it fits into entities and all this jazz?
It’s quite easy, really.
Google’s database contains a wealth of knowledge that’s mapped to known entities. Structured data mapped on Schema.org also corresponds to ideas that are entities.
When you combine structured data markup with this kind of knowledge, you end up bringing together a strong entity roadmap that proves to Google that you are an expert in that subject.
Anyway, structured data allows Google to display all of the entities on your page that it knows about in a beautiful way.
In short, it’s a method for allowing Google to understand what the data on your page means.
Once Google understands what the data on your page means, it’s able to display it in a meaningful way that helps their users.
This ends up resulting in a display to the right of the search results called a knowledge panel.
This knowledge panel is constructed from Google’s database of known entities and what it knows about that particular entity.
It’s not entirely random, but it’s not entirely an accident, either.
Google compiles all this knowledge through their knowledge graph, which is their algorithm of defining, compiling, and presenting entities and entity data to users.
Using structured data on your pages gives you a higher chance of being known as an entity for certain topics. But, it’s not the be-all, end-all of increasing your visibility.
It’s best to think of it more as a supplemental component to your overall SEO strategy, rather than the only thing you’re going to do.
Where Do Facts in the Knowledge Graph Come From?
One key component of the method that Google uses to pull facts from is other content owners. The knowledge panels claimed by these content owners is one source.
It also includes a wide variety of sources that compile factual information (including public sources such as Wikipedia).
What Policies Does Google Have in Place for Their Knowledge Graph?
Google explains that they have aggressive overall policies to combat spam and misinformation.
Examining their policies is important because it allows us to see where they are coming from in terms of a policy perspective.
While most of this is common sense—and common knowledge—we wanted to give a brief introduction to them here.
Google says that they do not allow the following content to appear in their knowledge graph panels and similar displays:
- Dangerous content
- Deceptive practices
- Harassing content
- Hateful content
- Manipulated media
- Medical topics
- Regulated goods
- Sexually explicit content
- Terrorist content
- Violence & gore
- Vulgar language & profanity”
Google also goes further and explains they have policies against incorrect information, along with non-representative information.
These are their policies:
Information that is demonstrably false or outdated, as evidenced by, but not limited to legal documents, expert consensus, or other reputable primary sources. We may decline to act on facts that are reasonably disputed or lack demonstrative evidence.
Names, titles, descriptions, and images of subjects, when supported by strong evidence that our automated systems have not made the most representative selection.”
Where Does E-A-T and YMYL Come In?
E-A-T (expertise, authoritativeness, and trust), and YMYL (Your Money or Your Life) are concepts that are explained in Google’s Search Quality Raters Guidelines.
E-A-T refers to a website’s authority, and its expertise and trustworthiness in a given niche. Gary Illyes has mentioned in the past that this refers to overall links and citations in Google’s live algorithms.
YMYL, or Your Money or Your Life, refers to the type of site and how likely it is to be a site that is important transactionally and/or to the health, wealth, or life of the user. In other words, it’s a site that has such compelling and critical information that it could affect the user’s health, wealth, or their life.
These guidelines are guides for their human quality raters. Google employs thousands of these quality raters to manually sift through search results and identify sites that are part of the E-A-T and YMYL (your money or your life) framework.
Neither of them are part of Google’s current algorithms that we know of.
It’s a mistake to use E-A-T and YMYL for ranking purposes, simply because they can cause issues in implementing strategies that have nothing to do with SEO. They can also cause misappropriations in client budgets – when E-A-T and YMYL does nothing.
Once again, E-A-T and YMYL are concepts that are part of a framework used by human quality raters. These quality raters work in an entirely different department than the search engineers.
While they are critical components of how Google as a company operates in certain departments, they do not have any bearing on search itself.
But Google Uses E-A-T and YMYL in Their Documentation. Why?
Sadly, this is a situation where Google’s own blogs have gone wrong. E-A-T and YMYL are currently not part of their algorithms, but they do act like it.
Is there any answer as to why and how they continue to implement something like this in their documentation?
We wish they wouldn’t continue spreading misinformation.
Does Google Use Entities as a Ranking Factor?
No, they are not a factor that determines ranking. At least they aren’t in the traditional sense. We also don’t know the secret sauce they use to determine what weight they give these signals. We do know, however—based on what Gary Illyes and John Mueller have discussed on numerous occasions—that content and links are factors that the entity graph influences heavily.
Content and Entities as Ranking Factors
Relevance and quality of content have been judged in the past by keywords. This component of SEO is far from dead. As Brooks Manley notes over on Search Engine Watch:
“Keywords aren’t dead, but entities give better insight to search engines on the relationship between words in a search.”
Links and Entities as Ranking Factors
Relevant links are necessary in order for a post to rank for their given targeted keyword phrase. This is nothing new. In fact, it’s probably one of the most common pieces of knowledge in the SEO space.
Mobile-First Indexing and Entities
There are some SEOs who believe that mobile-first indexing means entity-first indexing.
Over on Mobile Moxie, Cindy Krum wrote an excellent five part series detailing the aspects of mobile-first indexing and how it relates to entities.
“From what I can see, Google’s change to Mobile-First Indexing is much more about an entity classification and translation than it is about a different user-agent and viewport size for the bot. I believe this so much that I have started calling Mobile-First Indexing ‘Entity-First Indexing’. It is much more accurate and descriptive of the challenges and changes that SEO’s are about to face with Mobile-First/Entity-First Indexing.”
This is an interesting characterization. But with the changes we have seen in search and SEO as of late, along with continuous algorithm updates, we would be remiss to not go down this path.
Because more and more, it would seem this classification is quite accurate.
Also, in this article Cindy writes that domains are considered entities within a larger hierarchical structure.
Via entities, this structure provides context and understanding that would have been lacking in Google’s former algorithms.
There is some evidence that this deeper hierarchical understanding of entities exists, based on John Mueller’s answer to a question in one of his Reddit AMAs:
Notice how he talks about brands as a whole. His discussion about brands as a whole brings an entirely new dimension to thinking about websites as standalone entities.
With entity-based indexing, this means that websites are generally more grouped together under a brand—and they are also evaluated as an entity.
Before entity-based indexing, the international version of a site would have been chosen based on more algorithmic factors.
The hierarchically-organized entity-based interpretation means that you must think about your website optimization efforts as a whole entity under your brand name, rather than as an individual component you are in charge of.
Is mobile-first indexing really entity-first indexing? It is definitely looking more and more like this is the case.
How to Take Advantage of Entity SEO
Okay. You say, “I’m convinced. How do I take advantage of entity SEO and bring my own SEO into the modern realm?”
You do this by performing entity SEO.
Entity SEO focuses on making sure your website nails the specific topics that it should be known for.
How do you unearth all the individual topics? By performing an entity audit.
These audits are deep dives into the entities your website is known for, and should be known for.
Perform an Entity Audit
The first step to achieving next-level entity optimization is to perform an entity audit.
What exactly is an entity audit?
Well, it’s just what it sounds like: an audit of a brand’s known entities.
It ensures that your website uses the proper known entities associated with your brand, and helps you write content that is indicative of the topics your website should really be discussing. And this is at the core of entity optimization best practices.
Audit Your Site
When auditing your website, you will want to find all the entities that are part of your known brand. You can do this by auditing your site along with your competitors.
While attempting to uncover entities, it’s important to keep in mind that they shouldn’t just be any old generic keyword that you would identify in a keyword research project.
Instead, they should all be nouns—ideas, places, people, things—all of the hyper-singular topics that are known to your industry and to your brand. Cut the fluff and the noise, and get to the meat of what matters most.
Basically, an entity could be defined as any subject that’s linked with a Wikipedia page. The reason being that Wikipedia is an entity data set that was used for the creation of Google’s knowledge graph.
There are things called entity types that you must be familiar with. Any entity mentioned within your document should be a concrete entity, that’s properly and wholly defined by itself. And these types of entities are usually distinct entities themselves.
Any supporting entities should be added in order to improve the contextual entities surrounding the concrete entities.
For example: Wendy’s might have the following entities associated with it: Dave Thomas, fast food, cheeseburgers, french fries, etc.
Another example: Terminator 2: Judgment Day as a movie might have the following entities associated with it: Director James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, etc.
These are just some examples of distinct entities with supporting entity types.
You might be wondering by this point: are keywords entities? And does it mean that if a word is a keyword, is it also an entity?
No. A keyword could count as any word that you type in the search bar on Google to create a query. So, you can’t say that any keyword is an entity, and vice versa.
The characteristic of distinct entities is that they are nouns, places, things, etc. Something that is a thing with supporting entities within that particular knowledge graph.
So, it’s not just a simple matter of converting keywords to entities and saying they are entities. Instead, you have to shift your mindset when optimizing so that you can focus on entities rather than just focusing on keywords.
Does that make sense?
After The Entity Audit
Once you have audited your website’s known entities, you can move forward with creating content that best fits those gaps.
Pay close attention to what your competitors are doing vs. you, especially regarding links, content, and technical SEO.
These all still matter.
Just because you’re focusing on entities doesn’t make the other important aspects of SEO matter less.
After Entity Audit Implementation
Assuming you’re doing the entity audit correctly, your implementation will involve publishing your content and achieving the relevant links.
And working on the website architecture with your top-focused entities properly arranged.
Entity SEO is Really Modern SEO
Identifying entities and SEO-ing around them is really modern SEO. Keywords aren’t dead. Links aren’t dead. And content definitely isn’t dead.
If you have been in SEO for any length of time, you are likely aware of how much SEO actually shifts.
You keep up on these shifts by reading, monitoring SEO blogs daily, and making sure that you’re not missing critical points of interest that will benefit your SEO strategy.
This includes entity SEO.
When you’re optimizing for entities, you’re optimizing for all of the known topics, sub-topics, and things that your brand is and should be known for.
This is a shift from the older pages mindset, where some SEOs believe “Google ranks pages, not websites.” You still need to optimize for your pages, but this shouldn’t be an afterthought.
Context matters now more than ever before. Optimizing within the known contexts of your entities is important.
Keywords still play their part, although their focus has shifted.
It’s not about stuffing your content to the brim with every variation of your keywords anymore.
And it hasn’t been about doing SEO that way for a long time now.
When are you going to get started doing entity SEO?