Ten year anniversary since the publication of Google Semantic Search book by David Amerland

It’s been a full ten years since the publication of Google Semantic Search the book that first introduced practical steps to search engine optimization practises for a fully semantic web and got the conversation rolling about entities in search, and their effect on attributes such as expertise, authority and trustworthiness. 

In that time I have gone on to author more books on search, one on trust, and a couple of books on decision-making and intentionality.

On the surface of it each book since Google Semantic Search (which you can, by the way, download for free here) seems to have taken a step away from my focus on search per se. 

This was partially reflected in my international talks on trust in Las Vegas, communication in Shanghai and social media behavior in Singapore. All of these however are components of search. Stripped of its technological advancement which has been considerable since those heady days in 2013, search technology is ultimately about human behavior. 

It’s about how we use a tool, the search interface, to satisfy a need: find the answer to a question, discover a fact we are looking for or solve an issue we are facing. We now know that all of these things have an energetic cost which, neuroscience suggests, make us tend towards the easiest solution possible each time. And this brings us to the current state of search. 

Some of my thoughts on the subject have surfaced already in this post. And because I don’t like repeating myself I won’t go over the same issues. But it helps to better understand some of the changes we see by digging a little bit deeper. 

AI, chatGPT and Generative Search

At an operational level, search is about connecting items of data with queries that require them. This hasn’t changed since the days when we would ask a friend for a recommendation on something we needed. Its function is the same: we use information to better understand and then navigate the world. 

The tools we used for this task in a pre-digital world included the telephone, radio, newspapers and television. The fact that all of these tools are still in play but in a largely invisible format and used in a function that contains a lot more dimensions than before shows just how we use technology and how technology, in turn, changes us. 

Search itself changes the way we use our brain to remember things (our transactive memory) and how we learn (called adaptive learning). 

Technology always has an impact on behavior. The first cell phones were not just communication devices but also status symbols. Since then they have become intertwined with the way we operate in the world, receive news, share information and curate our identity. We focus more on those effects than the devices themselves which have, largely, become invisible. 

Similarly, search, as it advances through a combination of large language models (LLMs) and generative, conversation style interfaces backed by an ever increasing knowledge graph, will become smaller, more personal, agile, predictive and functionally intertwined with what we do on a daily basis.

In a world where data is the building block and information the means through which everything runs search switches from something which helps us make sense of the world at large at a local, personal level to an integral component of how we function. In the not so far future information retrieval (a.k.a. search) will be as integrated into the fabric of our life as electricity is today. It will also be just as invisible and, quite possibly, brand-agnostic which means the era of Google search and Microsoft search and X-tech brand search will be in the past and search will be seen as a utility. 

What does this mean for SEO, marketers and business people alike? 

Is SEO dead? Will Branding Disappear?

The “SEO is dead” train comes and goes with every fresh iteration of search. When Google’s semantic search was implemented that was the first question everyone was asking me and that was the number one myth that was being peddled by all the fantasists who want to do less work and get more rewards for it. 

I know that assessment sounds harsh but let’s get real. A new shop goes up in your neighborhood not more than a block of where you are. Unless you happen to pass by outside how would you know? Even if you do happen to pass by as it opens up, again, how would you know what’s inside? In the physical world work has to happen to spread the word somehow. Drums, cymbals and fireworks were the traditional means through which ‘noise’ was generated to announce its presence in the hope that for some this ‘noise’ would turn into a signal the instant they needed what it sold. 

That is a fundamental of human behavior: something has to catch our attention, keep it and then prompt us to action the moment we need its product or service. That’s phase 1 of the transaction between a business and its prospects which is aimed at leading to a conversion. Phase 2 is the experience of the transaction itself. A memorable, pleasant experience creates a ripple-effect of word-of-mouth publicity that leads to a reduction in the customer acquisition costs. 

The first commercial maker of stone clubs faced the exact same dynamic as the most advanced online business does today. The form and format may be different. The fundamental dynamic is not and it is unlikely to ever change as long as we remain neurobiologically the same. 

So, no matter how advanced search becomes it will still need some form of search engine optimization to help a business drive its brand. Because a brand is a construct that live sin the intersubjective space where objective reality intersects subjective beliefs branding will always have to happen. 

What will change, I believe, is the way we do all this. Less hype, less exaggeration, less positioning to jump on the current bandwagon and more realness in what we say, what we mean and what we expect. 

When technology ‘vanishes’ as a thing to implement and marvel at what remains is what has always been there: human connection driven by the same components that have always driven it: transactional values

The Struggle To Stay Relevant

All of this now brings us back to this moment. I assume you’re reading this in order to better understand what you need to do to position your business in a semantic search world driven by AI. The primary thing to understand is that nuance and information density matter when it comes to the moment where what you do as a business becomes relevant to a search query. 

Search cross-references more sources of information than ever before when it comes to ranking your website and presenting it as an answer to a search query. The list below is far from exhaustive but it will give you a running start to the future of search: 

  • Build your own graph. Cross-link your digital footprint to create a personal graph for your online business or brand. Your Instagram account should provide a link to your website. Your website should link to your Instagram account. If you’re on Twitter it should be mentioned. Your video content should provide links back to your website. Everywhere you are across the web should point back to you and you should, wherever possible, point back to it.
  • Create real content. Forget the “content for content’s sake” trend. That’s a trap that delivers thin value and thin value affects your audience’s experience of you. Bad experiences accumulate, word of them spreads and they kill your brand. Don’t start with “I need content”, instead ask yourself  “how can I serve?”. Content that is of service is of value. Valuable content does more for your SEO and brand than any amount of gimmicky wizardry you can come up with.
  • Provide solutions. Create content that answers questions. This piece answers the question of “What must I do for my business to remain relevant in online search?” The points here give you exactly that answer.
  • Respect your audience. I will use this piece as an example. In a way I had to write it because it is ten years since the publication of Google Semantic Search which became part of the building block of the semantic search community, globally. I find writing easy so I could fill a 3,000-word space with how amazing it is that after all this time most of the book is still relevant, what an incredible journey it has been and how grateful I am for the experiences its success afforded me. All true. All blah, too. You’re reading this looking for insights on what to do now to future-proof your business against the uncertainty of technological developments in search. In creating this piece I started with that in mind and it changed the direction I would have taken had I just been focused on how I felt and how great I think I am (which I don’t by the way). In respecting the time you put in to read this piece I wanted to give you as many actionable insights as I can. If you do the same with your potential customers you will find that they, in turn, will remember you more easily and recognize your brand, as a result, better.
  • Be social. No one doubts any more the capacity of social media to affect consumer choices, drive brand awareness and help a business thrive (and here’s a short piece on how all this works). But don’t just use social media as a means of mass broadcasting even if there are real time constraints to engaging with your audience. Think carefully about what you project and why, make it easier to be consistent in your messaging by being real, and think also who you address and what their concerns are.
  • Be inclusive. Within reason. The Bud Light debacle showcased what happens when inclusivity is applied as blindly and thoughtlessly as exclusivity. It really comes down to understanding your audience and their needs. It comes down to not speaking down to those you want to do business with. It comes down to being honest, transparent, open and real.
  • Be persistent. Have a scheduled approach to your content creation, online reach, marketing and branding that is in tune with your audience’s ability to receive the message you put out.
  • Be consistent. If your content creation, online messaging, marketing and branding happen only when you have the time or inclination search will notice the periodicity and potentially draw unfavorable conclusions to your commitment to the overall experience here.
  • Create memories. Help your audience remember you (and search like you) by creating such a great experience for those who come to your website and do business with you that they, in turn, become evangelists for your business and promoters of your products and services.
  • Be good. Have values and a purpose. These help underscore your beliefs as a business and shape the content you create, the marketing you do and the branding you put in place. Ultimately a business is an entity and entity attributes create a character that helps your audience decide where they stand with you. 

Each of the ten points above has a deeper subtext and more components that resonate with what’s important to consumers in the current context of our world. It reflects the changes we experience as traditional marketing and branding methods fall by the wayside and regular search engine optimization activities prove insufficient to help a business gain an edge. 

Summary

Bear in mind that semantic search is all about the connections between items of data (the nodes and edges of knowledge graphs). This is a trend that will only accelerate so we can better understand the importance and relevance of an item of data in response to a search query. Whatever interface we apply to communicate this is irrelevant. What is important is that we do the work necessary to help search engines better understand who we are, what we do, how we do it, why we do it and where this can be accessed. Solve for that, every time, and you have a future-proof blueprint for success in search.  

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