A linguistic approach to creating content that ranks

Search engines are trying to understand language: they want to understand what users are searching for, and they want to be able to provide them with the best results. Before I started working at Yoast, I studied linguistics: the scientific study of language. During my years at Yoast, I’ve noticed that linguistics and SEO have a lot of overlap. In this article, I want to give you some SEO insights from a linguistic perspective. Let’s dive in!

Different aspects of language

Before we can go into the linguistic approach to SEO, we first have to understand what language is. Language consists of many different aspects. Think about it: we make speech sounds or write letters, which together form words. We put these words in a specific order, so they form sentences and phrases. And these sentences mean something to us.

Sometimes we also want to achieve something with language. For example, when we say “it’s cold in here,” we might not only want to express we’re cold, but we could mean it as a request to close the window. To study all of these aspects, we distinguish different levels of language in the field of linguistics.

Linguistic levels of language

The most basic level is the level of sounds and letters, which we call phonology (when it comes to speech) and graphology (when we talk about writing). Then, there’s the morphological level, which studies how these sounds and letters together make words and different word forms. For example, the word “house” can be combined with “tree” to make “treehouse” and with “dog” to make “doghouse,” but we can’t really combine it with “banana.”

The next level, syntax, describes the rules we have for creating sentences. There are a million words we can choose from that we could use to form an infinite number of possible sentences. But these syntactic rules allow us only a small number of ways in which these words can be combined.

The level of semantics studies the meaning of different elements of language. What do we mean when we say something, and how do we understand others? Finally, pragmatics looks at meaning within a context. For instance, someone could say: “I’m getting hot, will you crack open the door?” Semantically, “crack” would mean “to break,” but pragmatically, we know that they don’t actually want us to break the door; they want us to open the door to let in some fresh air.

Level of languageField of linguistics
Sounds and lettersPhonology (speech) & graphology (writing)
Words and word formsMorphology
Sentences and rulesSyntax
Context and language use Pragmatics
Sources: Crystal (1987), Hickey (2005)

Which levels of language can Google understand?

Okay, but what does this have to do with search engines? Well, search engines are trying to understand language the way humans do. And they’re getting better and better at it. A couple of years ago, search engines could only understand basic elements of language: they could recognize keywords in your content. Because of that, it was common practice to optimize just for keywords.

But times have changed. Search engines are becoming smarter and smarter, and they are getting better at understanding more levels of language. Google is now trying to understand language at the level of syntax, morphology, semantics, and even pragmatics. How? Let’s find out.

Understanding what characterizes high-quality content

With every update, Google tries to get closer to understanding language like the human brain. The Panda update (2011) addressed thin content and keyword stuffing. People could no longer rank high with low-quality pages filled with keywords. Since this update, Google is trying to understand language at the semantic and pragmatic levels. They want to know what people deem high-quality content; content that genuinely offers information about the search term they used.

Read more: Google Panda »

Understanding the meaning of phrases

A few years later, with the Hummingbird update (2013), Google took a deeper dive into semantics. This update focused on identifying relations between search queries. It made Google pay more attention to each word in a search query, ensuring that the whole search phrase is taken into account, rather than just particular words. They wanted to be capable of understanding what you mean when you type in a search query.

Google took that even further. Since they rolled out the RankBrain algorithm in 2015, they can interpret neologisms (words that have not yet been fully accepted into mainstream language, like “coronacation”), colloquialisms (casual communication, like “ain’t” and “gonna”), and they can process dialogues.

Read more: A brief history of Google’s algorithm updates »

Understanding different word forms

Google also has become a lot better at understanding different forms of a word or phrase. You no longer have to stuff your articles with the same keyword over and over again. If you’re writing an article about [reading books], Google will recognize various forms of these words, like [read], [reads], and [book]. What’s more, Google also understands synonyms. Write about [novel], [chronicle], and [volume], and Google will still rank you for [book]. Using some variations in your wording makes your texts nicer to read, and that’s what Google finds important, too.

Read more: What is keyword stemming? »

Understanding pragmatics

But Google is not just trying to understand content by analyzing text. To identify which results are useful for people, they also use user signals, like the bounce rate, click-through rate, and the time people spend on a website. They are even researching users’ emotions to adapt their search results based on, for example, the choice of wording for a search query.

Understanding context

You might have heard about the most recent big update, BERT (2019). With their latest innovation, Google is again becoming closer to understanding language at a human level. BERT is a Natural Language Processing (NLP) model that uses the context and relations of all the words in a sentence, rather than one-by-one in order. With this update, Google can figure out the full context of a word by looking at the words that come before and after it. This helps them provide their users with even more meaningful and fitting results.

Read more: Google’s MUM understands what you need: 1000x more powerful than BERT »

A linguistic approach to SEO

So, what does this mean for how you should optimize your content? Google is trying to understand language like we do. And with every update, they are getting closer to understanding language at a human level. They want to provide their users with high-quality search results that fit their goals.

Simply put, this means you should write for your audience, and not for search engines. Research your audience, try to get to know them, and provide them with the information and solutions they are looking to find!

Write naturally and mix things up

Moreover, try to write naturally. Don’t just stuff your text with the keyphrase you’re trying to rank for. That’s not only unpleasant to read for your visitors, but also bad for your rankings. Google can understand synonyms, different word forms, and the context of words, so make use of that! If you’re trying to rank for [cat], don’t just use [cat] over and over in your text. Use synonyms, like [kitty] or [puss]. Mix things up and use the plural form, [cats], and related phrases, like [litter box] or [cat food].

Yoast SEO Premium can help you with this. Our plugin also recognizes synonyms, different word forms, and related phrases, and helps you optimize your content for these words. This allows you to write in a more natural way, so you can satisfy your users and rank high in the search results!

Read more: Should you optimize your content for questions? »

Coming up next!

41 Responses to A linguistic approach to creating content that ranks

  1. Jenn
    Jenn  • 4 years ago

    Hi Fleur, Thank you for this. It’s fascinating and very well researched. I’m also wondering about how Google approaches other languages—does the search algorithm understand French, Spanish, German as well as English? What about smaller languages? Norwegian, Lithuanian, Icelandic for example? Also, what about other search engines? Are there any others with as advanced language processing skills as Google? Thanks!

    • Camille Cunningham
      Camille Cunningham  • 4 years ago

      Hi Jenn, thanks for your comment! What’s cool about the BERT update in 2019 is that it can take learnings from one language and apply them to others. This means that although BERT was originally rolled out in the USA for the English language, Google can use the learnings of BERT to improve search in other languages as well.

      So, to give an answer to your question: Google uses English as the starting point, but uses the improvements in understanding search queries for other languages as well. Which might mean that their understanding of search queries in English is a bit further, but also means that the understanding of other languages is improving at the same time!

  2. Wally
    Wally  • 4 years ago

    This is a very interesting article that has me thinking. I have some content that I would like to translate into Spanish. Do you think this is a good idea or will Google consider it duplicate content and penalize my rankings? Or would it be best to just build another site with Spanish content?

    • Camille Cunningham
      Camille Cunningham  • 4 years ago

      Hi Wally!

      In this case, I would recommend looking into hreflang. This helps Google understand which region or language you’re targeting with your content. It takes some time, but it’s worth it: https://yoast.com/hreflang-ultimate-guide/

      Also, involve native speakers in the translation of your content. This way you can make sure you’re not making any awkward mistakes and that your content is appealing to the people you’re targeting!

  3. Hary
    Hary  • 4 years ago

    This change the way how we should write article.

    Thanks al alot.

    • Camille Cunningham
      Camille Cunningham  • 4 years ago

      You’re welcome, Hary!

  4. Kedar Joshi
    Kedar Joshi  • 4 years ago

    Hey – Wow! This is incredible article. Knowing the language and the way search engine understand the language is highly important for content creation and for search engine optimization. This is a wonderful article. Thanks for sharing it. Loved reading it a lot.

    • Fleur Heesen

      Thanks a lot, Kedar! Glad you enjoyed the article.

  5. Yehuda
    Yehuda  • 4 years ago

    Thanks for the article!
    In my experience, I see that Google still understands at a very basic level a lot of languages, like Hebrew or Ukrainian 🤷‍♂️

  6. Robert Woodman
    Robert Woodman  • 4 years ago

    This is an incredibly helpful article! The outbound links were also helpful and quite informative. Thank you very much for writing this.

    I love Yoast SEO Premium, and I find it useful for SEO scoring. However, I’m not so happy with it for readability. Unlike Grammarly, which lets me set the readability of my audience, Yoast appears to have a “one size fits all” mentality on reading levels. I really wish that Yoast would let me adjust the reading level of my pages and posts to fit my generally well-educated audience the way that Grammarly does. However, that quibble aside, I greatly love and enjoy using Yoast SEO Premium.

    Again, thank you for this quite helpful article.

    • Camille Cunningham
      Camille Cunningham  • 4 years ago

      Hi Robert, thanks for your comment! Concerning the readability analysis: we understand that this can be frustrating, but the things we look at are meant to make sure your text is clear and easy to understand. But of course, it’s up to you whether you want to do something with this feedback :)

      If you’re interested in reading more about this, I recommend this article on the feedback our SEO readability analysis gives: https://yoast.com/yoast-seo-hates-my-writing-style/

      • Robert Woodman
        Robert Woodman  • 4 years ago

        Thanks for that very helpful link. I better understand the focus and purpose of the readability scoring. I market fine and specialty chemicals to professional buyers. My writing will probably always be a bit more challenging than Yoast prefers. However, I think I can get more useful insights from the scoring now.

        • Camille Cunningham
          Camille Cunningham  • 4 years ago

          No problem, Robert! Lots of luck with your writing :)

  7. Rickey Gold
    Rickey Gold  • 4 years ago

    Love “write for your audience”. I’ve been stressing that to clients for ages. But Yoast Premium makes it so much easier for them to see what I’m talking about…..and how to do it.

    • Camille Cunningham
      Camille Cunningham  • 4 years ago

      That’s great to hear, Rickey!

  8. Shen
    Shen  • 4 years ago

    Can we copy another language (like Chinese) and translated it into English and correct some grammar? Does google know the article is duplicate?

    • Camille Cunningham
      Camille Cunningham  • 4 years ago

      Hi Shen!

      The solution here is implementing hreflang. This helps search engines understand which region or language you’re targeting with your content. It’s not easy, but it’s definitely worth the effort: https://yoast.com/hreflang-ultimate-guide/

      Also, keep in mind that translating takes some time. If possible, you should have native speakers translate or at least check your translated content to make sure your copy is appealing to your new audience. Good luck!

      • godproductuse
        godproductuse  • 4 years ago

        Hello Camille,

        Thank you for the information. It helps me to understand about hreflang. But what if we only copy 30% of content on the article from another language? Does it needs hreflang tag? Does google know its duplicate content?

        Thank you in advance.

  9. Liliane Najm
    Liliane Najm  • 4 years ago

    really good article.

    • Fleur Heesen

      Thanks a lot, Liliane!

  10. Kim
    Kim  • 4 years ago

    Great content! I studied Linguistics when I was in college too and it’s interesting to see the two world – SEO & Linguistics collide.

    • Nicole
      Nicole  • 4 years ago

      Kim, I did too!

      I love discovering the overlaps between SEO and linguistics that help me recognize how cool it is that I ended up in SEO so many years after getting my BA in Linguistics!

    • Fleur Heesen

      That’s cool, Kim! Thanks for your comment :-)

  11. Mohamed taher
    Mohamed taher  • 4 years ago

    Concerning pagmatics, I may have different view. It is not only to do with the text, but with the text linguistics, which, even humans have different approaches.

  12. SwiftChat Live Chat App
    SwiftChat Live Chat App  • 4 years ago

    Great post that’ll help new content creators improve their writing skills.

    • Fleur Heesen

      Glad you liked the article!

  13. Alex
    Alex  • 4 years ago

    What a article, really nailed it. Some of the content techniques you mentioned are very unique.

    • Fleur Heesen

      Thanks for your kind words, Alex!

  14. Shivam Pandey
    Shivam Pandey  • 4 years ago

    Interesting read. Thanks for posting!

    • Fleur Heesen

      You’re welcome, Shivam!

  15. Roberta Laguna
    Roberta Laguna  • 4 years ago

    What do the letters S E O stand for? (Search Engine Organizer?)

    • Fleur Heesen

      Hi Roberta, SEO stands for ‘Search Engine Optimization’. It’s the practice of optimizing your web pages to make them reach a high position in the search results of Google or other search engines. :-)

  16. Nansfit Muhammad
    Nansfit Muhammad  • 4 years ago

    I also studied English (Language, Linguistics and Literature), delving into the world of digital communication (how SEO works) just makes my background expertise more interesting.

    Your article was quite informative. I hope you put out more so we can learn. Thank you.

    • Fleur Heesen

      Thanks for your comment, Nansfit! That’s great to hear.

  17. farman e mustafa
    farman e mustafa  • 4 years ago

    thnks for sharing with us, keep posting, and please do posting on seo service for local business

    • Fleur Heesen

      You’re very welcome, Farman. Keep an eye on our blog for more posts on this topic!

  18. Rahul Sharma
    Rahul Sharma  • 4 years ago

    Hey Admin,
    Yes the main things is CONTENT quality nowadays, content is everything for bloggers and users to, creator need to be think as creator and visitors too. that’s makes content more attractive. hope we can see more blogs like this, thank for sharing,

    • Fleur Heesen

      Hey Rahul, thanks for your comment! Indeed, writing high-quality content should be a key aspect of your SEO strategy.

  19. Vrushabh Gandhi
    Vrushabh Gandhi  • 4 years ago

    I’ll try and keep in mind while writing my content. Thank you.

    • Fleur Heesen

      That’s great! You’re welcome, Vrushabh :-)