Semantic Search Common Questions Answered

Semantic search is now mature enough to require less of an explanation as to what it is and what it does (though if you do need a refresher on that you can find the ten most commonly asked questions about it answered here). This does not mean it’s easy to grasp however.

Ruled by Entities, Ontologies and tags, semantic search is changing the way we relate to the web and the way we find information that’s relevant to us.

The ten points below come courtesy of repeated emails and questions sent to me across several social networks as I have taken part in public discussions, Hangouts-On-Air and podcasts to help demystify semantic search and its impact on marketing.

1. There is no need for SEO any more. Because Google’s new spiders can crawl a web document and extract meaning from it the way you and I would (mostly), there is a sense that this has freed us from using traditional search engine optimization practices and services. Actually quite the opposite is now true. Because of semantic search the traditional way of surfacing content across the web (i.e. through desktop search) is no longer as effective as it used to be. Content now surfaces across mobile, tablet, social networks, and content channels other than just the traditional “ten little blue links”. This requires an SEO professional who actually understands the semantic web and semantic search. And SEO itself now has to be a deeper part of the web marketing of any business than ever before.

2. Keywords do not matter. This is a little misunderstood. Although there have been countless “Keywords are dead” articles across the web to complement the “SEO is dead” ones, keywords do matter. What does not work quite as well any more is the practice of creating content around keywords in the expectation that this would drive search engine traffic to your website which could then be leveraged to produce conversions and sales on your landing pages. Content that contains keywords, now, has to work at a deeper level and deliver real value to the visitor, first, before it even stands a chance of surfacing through search.

3. Google Authorship is a shortcut to the new SEO. Implementing Google Authorship that helps you officially claim ownership of content you have created on the web and shows a thumbnail of you on Google search is a powerful marketing aid and a means of establishing a closer connection with your online audience. It can, potentially, help your ranking in Google search by increasing the click through rate (CTR) from Google search (Google stats show that results in Google desktop search that have an Authorship thumbnail attached receive up to 25% more clicks). It is not however an instance shortcut to better ranking. At the 2013 PubCon conference in Las Vegas, Matt Cutts announced that Google is beginning to look at quality in content as a means of sorting through Google Authorship in search thumbnails and displaying the thumbnail only when it has the confidence that the quality of the content and the end user experience is not going to be poor. If you want to implement Google Authorship (and you haven’t already) here are some guidelines from Google. The flat-out authority on the subject is Mark Traphagen of Virante he writes extensively on that and is well worth following.

4. Content is now King. I need more content. We have been down this road before and, personally I detest the phrase “content is King” because I have been hearing it since 2005. The result of it back then was a “mechanical Turk” type culture that used online platforms to cheaply source keyword-rich content for sometimes as low as $5 per article from writers across the world. It produced a lot of the low-quality content that the Google Panda update hit so badly. So yeah content is important but realistically it always has been and it was wrong to treat it as cheap fodder to bring online visitors on mass to a landing page so that advertising and inducements could help convert into paying customers. If anything, in the semantic web you do not need more content but you definitely need better content.

5. mark-up is a semantic search ranking factor. Because we talk about semantic search and the semantic web it seems reasonable to suppose that the implementation of semantic search-friendly mark-up like the languages proposed by will provide a natural advantage in search. Matt Cutts (again) at the 2013 PubCon conference in Las Vegas, pointed out that the implementation of approved semantic mark-up that Google uses to display Rich Snippets in search is not a ranking factor (it never has been) and Google will also start to sort through websites that implement such mark-up based on the quality of the content and the quality of the end user experience, first.

6. Link dumping on social networks is the new SEO. Because the social web plays such an important role in the ability of content to appear in search. It is assumed that dumping links, willy-nilly, across social networks is another “new SEO” shortcut that will help in ranking on Google’s semantic search. As a matter of fact that is likely to have almost the exact opposite result. Certainly content dumped this way gets found and indexed by Google fast but indexed is not the same as ranked. If there is no engagement with those who see it across these social networks Google is more likely to use this as a signal of low quality and simply not surface it at all.

7. Social is the new SEO. You will notice there is a recurring theme with “new SEO” which is the result of the questions that arise and our obsession with finding shortcuts on the web. Social activity in relation to your website and its content is certainly something that is required and it can help your website’s content find its audience faster but a shortcut to anything it ain’t. If anything using social networks to find an audience requires a very clear understanding of the audience you are targeting and its needs, and a very clear idea of what you are doing as an online business, and why.

8. Targeting influencers is now important. Influencers can be your gateway to reaching a greater audience and yes, they are important in that regard, but they are not an easy “nut” to crack. Being influencers they are careful with their time and all too aware that their recommendation counts to their audience. As a result they are very careful in what they recommend. There is no “best” way to get the attention of influencers in your industry, beyond the reasonable one: produce the kind of content they feel they can happily share and put their social clout, behind.

9. Video and pictures are more important than written content. It’s true the web is going visual. There is a novelty factor in this as HD in video and high-quality images are changing the way this works in terms of getting eyeballs. There is also a need for this kind of interaction as written content, traditionally, requires time to read and the available time to devote to any kind of online activity is getting shorter and shorter. As a result pictorial content and video content play an important role because they are semantically dense in their ability to convey meaning at many different levels and arrest the attention of their target audience. Ultimately they will only get you so far. Pictures and video should be part of your content creation strategy, now, but they should also play a strong complementary role to written content, rather than looking to replace it.

10. Links no longer matter as a ranking factor. Well, I so wish they didn’t because their very existence created the link economy of the past and was behind a great deal of search engine gaming that wrecked the quality of the search results in search. Unfortunately they still do though the Google Penguin update cleared out much of the dross and penalized websites that had bought links from bad neighbourhoods on the web or had used dubious link-building methods to rank in search. Links now need to come by honestly (and I know it’s hard work). Create valuable, compelling content of the kind that webmasters will want to link to and it is more than likely that you will then get the links you expect to have in order to rank. Try to game the system and, well … you know what’s coming.

What You Missed

Ten Common Semantic Search Questions Answered
Semantics, Context and Personalization
Semantic Search and Your Business
Semantic Image Search
Semantic Strategies for your Business

External Links

An Introduction to Entities in Semantic Search
Register for Google Authorship