Context turns noise into signal at the end-user interface

I don’t write a lot about semantic search these days. The primary reason is that after five books on the subject including the ground-breaking Google Semantic Search I’ve grown bored of covering the same ground just for the sake of gaining a little more search-visibility as an authority on the subject. In keeping with what this article is really about, that approach would serve only my ego and provide little that is of fresh value to my readers. 

To get back on the subject, the fundamentals of search (quality content, expertise in your subject, authority in your knowledge and trustworthiness in your set up) haven’t changed since search became a thing. Information retrieval however (which is the more formal name for search) is a subject that predates search engines. The way we discover, filter, store and retrieve information from the external world and from our brain (the internal world we experience) is fascinating to me because it is fundamental to our survival and central to our behavior.

Our behavior creates the world we experience. Everything then in that world; from how we make a purchase decision to how we use search to discover information or decide when and how and from where to buy a product or a service is determined by the factors that shape our behavior.

Trust is key to all relational exchanges between humans. Decision-making is now a science because our brains have to deal with ever more complex scenarios. All of these have held my interest and my thinking on them has found its way into books that take the subject apart and demystify its components so we can better understand it.

The reason I am returning to search and content creation in this post is because new research helps us now connect some dots that in the past remained isolated. As a result this post will rehash some ground to create the new framework that emerges.

Let’s start with the basics we already know.

“Content Is King”

The trite phrase that’s trotted out whenever we want to excuse the need to create a lot of content and spam the webz has its own element of truth. So, let’s start with that. Content creation is necessary for many different reasons.

First, activity. A ‘dead’ site that hasn’t been updated since 1999 will still have some value and its content will surface in the results to search queries from time to time but only when A. Its relevance is 100% guaranteed or B. No other content quite manages to fit the bill of a particular search query.

Just like a shop whose front window is never updated an inactive site is deemed to be of less value than one that appears to have fresh content, a robust social media presence and lots of mentions across the social web.

Second, relevance. Content is like fashion. It may have a cyclical nature in time but the most current content is also the one likely to have the most appeal at the moment as it is most likely to reflect current needs and take current end-user concerns into account. I may manage to run a successful Model-T Ford site, for instance, but that is only likely to appeal to those car enthusiasts actively looking for a Model-T Ford. Most modern car buyers search for Ford cars that are a little more advanced.

Third, freshness. Fresh content is more likely to be considered share worthy. It is more likely to be read. It is more likely to be seen and it is more likely to contain some of the elements potential searchers are looking for. While freshness of content on its own guarantees nothing, Google’s Query-Deserves-Freshness (QRF) ranking factor as part of its Historical Data Patent does indicate that in the right context fresher content does better than aged content. Bill Slawski does a brilliant job analyzing this on his website and I’d urge you to also check out the second part to his post on this which also references a number of academic research papers on the subject.

Finally, context. Context is important enough in search to warrant a mention on its own so I will only tangentially touch upon it on this point but I will return to it in the rest of the article. Context in search affects marketing and so does context collapse which was a recurring feature of marketing woes in the first two decades of the 21st century. Context collapse is changing thanks to Generation-Z (more about that in a later piece, I promise) and context in search continues to be of central importance.

Just to recap then, content is a key element of any web marketing strategy with the caveat that it helps meet end-user search needs.

Empathy Is Important

We know that empathy is the ingredient that builds trust in the first instance. But empathy does way more than that. Studies show that content that is written, created or presented in a way that engenders empathy by triggering a strong emotional response has significantly more chances to go viral than content that doesn’t do that.

The reason this happens is because it is always our emotions that drive our decisions and content that has been written in a way that activates our empathy automatically triggers a much stronger emotional response. This is also the explanation why we are moved more by the plight of a single individual than say a report that tells us that hundreds of thousands of people are suffering or have died. Our brain finds it impossible to identify with hundreds of thousands even though logically we understand the enormity of the number involved and comprehend its importance. A single individual however is something that we can readily identify with because it activates the mirror neuron network in our brain.

Empathy is created from content that directly addresses the needs of its audience and means something to them. 

Context Is Needed To Make Sense

It helps to consider all data, indeed, every single piece of information in the universe as random noise. Whether we use our eyes, ears, nose and skin or the interface of a digital search engine the problem is exactly the same: how do we make sense of what we receive as a response?

Sense is created by narrowing down the boundaries of what we perceive so that we can solve something that is relevant to us. Boundaries create context. Context helps turn the noise we perceive into a signal that is important to us.

This is why context is important in Web3 technologies and personalization. Context is also the space where augmented reality, AI and virtual reality come together.

It helps to think of context as the lines that join the dots. Context however is defined by actions. In the case of search it is defined by intent. It helps to remember that there is no action that has no intent. Intent gives actions meaning. Context creates meaning in data. Intent creates meaning in actions.

Do you see now what you need to do in order to make your search marketing succeed? In order to make your marketing succeed?

Context transforms the noise of meaningless information into a sensemaking signal

In the context of the cover image for this article it is context that transforms the meaningless noise of information provided by squiggles on a screen into the sense-making signal that represents specific life forms on planet Earth.

Context, Search, Decision-Making and Marketing

Do you want to make your website appear in search in response to a particular search query? Do you want to make your marketing work so that your prospects convert into customers? Then ‘all’ you have to do is make sure the meaning of the content you create matches the meaning of the actions of your prospects.

‘All’ is in inverted commas because it isn’t a simple thing to do. When we create content we always start off from what we want to promote. This is the same whether we are creating articles, blog posts, ads or marketing campaigns. This is almost inevitable because the starting point of any of those actions is our intent to promote what we do. The meaning we put in that content then is what is important to us. It may not necessarily reflect the intent of the actions of those we seek to attract.

To better understand the importance of context it’s necessary to examine this recently released study in the way the brain decides which old memories to activate and when to acquire new ones. Titled “Contextual inference underlies the learning of sensorimotor repertoires” the study basically highlights how context is the key tool the brain uses to recognize something new that must be learnt from something familiar to which it can apply past knowledge. So, context is how the brain determines what to do next when it encounters information. 

The study explains the mechanism through which our brain adapts to the constant complexity of the real world. What is important to us here though is the sensitivity of context in surfacing old and seemingly forgotten information and its importance in making the information we see make sense so that we understand its importance. This is one of those axons-to-actions insights.

That’s how the brain works at the interface at which external information meets our senses. Search provides information. Ads provide information. Marketing provides information. Relationships provide information. The context that is present at the contact interface, whichever that may be, will determine what happens next.

How can you benefit from this insight?

Re-Examine The Context Of Your Actions

Consider how meaning is created by the content that you generate, the ads you put in place, the marketing messaging you employ, the promotional material you use. Determine just what kind of meaning is generated by your actions. How does it arise exactly? Where does it fit in the wider world? To do that you need to consider exactly what data to include. What facts are commonly known that create a sense of familiarity which, in turn, creates engagement and allows more complex data to be included. To give you an idea consider how, in y original cover illustration of this article I had the tracks of a bird, the tracks of a bipedal mammal (not human) and the tracks of a snake. My initial reasoning was that these are animals that normally leave tracks on the ground. We humans wear shoes and walk on paved roads so we don't normally leave tracks. Yet that initial illustration, accurate as it might be, was also hard to understand (particularly the snake tracks). 

By deciding to include human barefoot tracks I created a familiarity that helps the viewer decode the illustration even if they are unfamiliar with the tracks of a hoofed animal or even a bird. I bounded the possible interpretations of the information and created context that now makes the data you see make sense. This is the shift in thinking that is now required when creating content. 

To help you a little consider these points:

  • Create content that has boundaries that define context
  • Consider your audience’s emotions within the context of the content you create
  • Aim to serve instead of aiming to promote
  • Make content-creation decisions that focus on others not just you
  • Have a purpose in your actions that is not about your needs

TL;DR

If everything you do is just about you then you are unlikely to find the audience appeal you expect to find and you will not easily convert prospects into customers or followers. Context that best meets prospect intent is created when true meaning is added in the relational exchange that takes place.

 

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