For years, human beings have had to make an effort to learn how to talk to computers. Programming languages. Assembly code. Heck, remember when you had to use boolean operators in Google? But now, computers are learning how to talk like human beings through the power of something called “Natural Language Processing.” What is it? Why does it matter to SEO? And why am I still asking rhetorical questions when I’m obviously just going to answer them in the next paragraph?

What Is Natural Language Processing?

Humans don’t speak in keywords. We speak in phrases, sentences, paragraphs. We use turns of phrase to convey unspoken meanings. We like adverbs. When keyword-based search engines like Google took over the web, most of us got used to stripping these things from our searches. You’re more likely to Google something like “Batman and Robin runtime” than you are to use a full sentence like “How long is Batman and Robin?” (The answer, by the way, is two hours and five minutes, though it feels much longer when you’re actually watching it.)

But not only is “natural search” (search queries that use full questions written in natural human language) on the rise in 2017, but search engines are getting better and better at dealing with it. Google can understand colloquialisms, like searching for “when did Batman and Robin come out” instead of “when was Batman and Robin released.” It can even handle complex, multi-part queries like “Who was the US president when Batman and Robin came out.” Bing’s algorithm is less capable than Google’s at dealing with these complicated questions, but it has a feature Google doesn’t – the ability to ask questions within questions. For example, you can ask Bing “Who was the director of Batman and Robin” and then ask “How tall is he” to learn that Joel Schumacher is 6’3” (and it gives you a few other Batman directors too, just in case.)

How are these search engines able to accomplish this? Through Natural Language Processing, a way for computers to understand, analyze, and derive meaning from human language. Though the technology behind NLP is very complex, it’s something that’s very important for any content creator to understand.

How Does Natural Search Affect SEO?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer to this is “lots of ways.” For one thing, it heightens something we’ve written about before: here keywords are out, topics are in. Fewer and fewer searches are going to be something as simple as “SEO Strategies”  – instead, we’ll see the rise of searches like “How do I get people to find my website?” You need to make sure you’re providing the best answer to that question, not just using some keyword over and over again in your posts. A working knowledge of Latent Semantic Indexing can also be very helpful here.

It also means that your site needs to be designed to play well with mobile. A big part of the reason for the rise of natural search is the rise of voice recognition software like Siri, Cortana, Alexis, and Google Now. Often, those using natural search are doing so on the go, asking their phone or smartwatch for information so that they can keep their hands free.

But perhaps the scariest thing about Natural Language Processing and Natural Search is that the technology is still in its infancy, and there’s not enough data to know for sure how it’s going to change the SEO landscape. The best advice, currently, is also the oldest and most consistently valuable: make good content. Make content that answers real questions that people are asking, and make it useful, and make sure it links back to accredited sources. Research shows that one of the biggest benefits of natural search is that it’s really good at weeding out results that try to “cheat” search rankings – sites that use keyword stuffing, for example, or sites that use thousands of linkbacks to give them a boost.

One thing’s for sure, though: the world of SEO is changing, and if we don’t change with it, we’re going to get left behind.