Common questions on semantic search

We are in the days of the semantic web. Terms like “entity”, “ontology library” and “structured data” are going to figure more and more promptly in our lives. Marketers will have to come to terms with this, webmasters will need to understand how to use it, analysts will have to take it into account, social media experts will now have to consider it and all of us will be affected by it.


1. What the hell is semantic search? It is the presentation of answers in search in a way that understands the search query and the intent behind it. This is a really big deal. In order to do this the search engine has to understand natural language the way you and I understand it which means not just the words (that’s relatively easy) but their contextual meaning. The question “what’s to eat around here?” asked to your cousin at his home will produce different answers than if asked to your homes on a night out. The words you use may be exactly the same but the context is different and so is the relevance. Well, semantic search engines take all this into account in the same way.

2. So it only affects search? Well, yes, semantic search changes the way search understands the way we look for information and this, in turn, changes the way it needs to understand the information that’s stored in its search index. That means that semantic search is one aspect of the much bigger semantic web.

3. How is the web semantic? Search and the web are closely tied to each other. The web is revealed to us through search and the information it holds is only as good as our ability to find it and use it. By changing the way this information is presented semantic search is also changing the way the web works. Information now needs to be created with a different set of criteria in mind than simply surfacing a website in search so that an ad can be clicked on or a product can be bought. Because information now needs to hold real value in order to surface in search, the semantic web has a higher level of meaning and informational value in the content it holds and how that content relates to other bits of content elsewhere on the web.

4. Does this mean SEO is changing? Yes. In the pre-semantic search days when a search engine looked at a web page it saw statistical text analysis elements, not real words. So “Google Semantic Search” for instance, meant nothing to a search engine. It was simply a search string that the algorithm would use to look for occurrence patterns in a body of text. Depending on how closely this matched certain requirements which would, in turn, be mapped onto the search query, it would determine where a web page was ranked high, or not, in search. The problem with this approach is that it becomes easy to game. You could, for instance, create a page full of nonsense text with “Google Semantic Search” strategically placed throughout and provided you also got the right link pattern associated with it (by getting other websites to link to it or even buying in links) you could get it to rank high in search regardless. This now is no longer possible. Semantic search looks at a page and truly understands its meaning. This means that blind SEO tactics no longer work. The content of the page needs to contain real value for the end user otherwise it will no longer work. This has led to a change in the role of the SEO professional who now has to be much more than just a technical specialist.

5. Is semantic search technical? Yes and no. At a very strict level semantic search requires structured data mark up but the point of semantic search and the semantic web is that it reduces the reliance on the ability to code. As such, a lot of what semantic search does is take unstructured data and index it in a structured data format so much of the work is done for you. The process, as you can imagine is both complex and imprecise so anything you do that helps add clarity to it and make it easier will help your website.

6. Do I need to have a social presence? Yes. Semantic search requires a strong and constant social signal. In the semantic web attributes such as trust and reputation revolve around identity. These are all aspects of the social web. An online business without a social presence is immediately handicapped.

7. Are there any shortcuts I can take in semantic search? The idea of shortcuts in search engine optimisation is what led us to a dead-end in traditional search and SEO. Semantic search requires you to invest real time and effort in building up your online profile, reputation and identity. Having said that if you’re not active in Google+ today you’ve missed out on a large chunk of what you should be doing. Google+ is the closest you’ll get to a shortcut in semantic search.

8. Is semantic search related to Big Data? Yes. Semantic search, just like the semantic web are expressions of Big Data. The four vectors of Volume, Velocity, Variety and Veracity that define Big Data also define semantic search.

9. What should I be paying attention to first? Success in semantic search requires a holistic approach to business and marketing that is hard to fake and hard to game. This means that your message and marketing really need to hit the notes of authenticity and trust that we routinely know we need to hit in the offline world. In this context, content plays a truly crucial role. It becomes the delivery vehicle through which you will gain visibility, engagement and interaction.

10. How is marketing changing? Search is marketing. A large part of the activities involved in creating better visibility for your online business now comes under the province of marketing. SEO used to be a bolt-on activity to a business that could be picked up and dropped as necessary. Now it needs to be closely integrated in the business itself, becoming part of its DNA and that means that marketing and search engine optimisation can no longer be viewed as separate activities.


**Update: Over at Google+ there is a lively discussion thread associated with this post. The comments, answers, and suggestions are of great value in their own right and if you do have a little time it is well worth your checking it out


What you Missed

Google Semantic Search Practical Book
Web 3.0 and Semantic Search
The Changing Role of the SEO Professional
SEO Help 20 steps to semantic search success
Google’s Semantic Search and Video SEO
An Introduction to Google’s Semantic Search (video)