Semantic Search Five Organizational Principles

Semantic search is about as big a conceptual leap as we are ever likely to make in the digital world. Prior to that search was comprised of basic building blocks (keywords, on-page elements, backlinks, content length, URL structure and so on). Ideally you needed all of them but, depending on circumstances, budget and how good your competitors were in SEO, you could get away with perhaps correctly implementing a handful of them.

What’s even more important is that because you could see the building blocks that made up the edifice called “search visibility” the temptation to amplify a few (if not all) and help it get there faster, was always there. Gaming Google’s search is a human economic behavior. The model that governs such behavior also takes into account the fact that activities that exceed the allowable boundaries of a system become justifiable the moment the perceived rewards outweigh the perceived risks.

Semantic search is as open to analysis and interpretation of the elements that govern it as the good ol’ Boolean search of the past was. Yet the effort required to achieve a positive outcome (i.e. higher visibility in search) is now every bit as labor and cost intensive as doing the right thing. Semantic search, in other words, does not automatically make us all behave in a morally better way because it is the right thing to do. It makes us behave morally better because there is no viable alternative.

Search is Psychology

Search has always had an impact on our behavior and some effect on our brains. Because it becomes the window through which we access the online world it has held the power to control the shape of it, we perceive.

SEO however, has always been about techniques. Until now. Semantic search has much in common with Gestalt psychology. It looks at the phenomena it studies as organized and structured wholes rather than the sum of their parts and, like semantic search, it deals with entities and how we perceive them.

The question that arises with semantic search, now, is that since there are so many elements that drive it and since many of them are roughly equal so that none has a significant advantage over the other, how can we create a strategy that actually works? This is where Gestalt psychology comes into its own.

Semantic search revolves around entities. The new SEO associated with it is designed to help Google understand yourself or your business as an entity rather than just content. The easiest way to do that is to apply the “gestalt laws of perceptual organization” to your website (and your social media marketing activity).

1. The Law of Proximity

The Law of proximity states that when we see a collection of objects we see objects close to each other as forming a group. Applied to your content, the grouping of visual elements on your website and the way content is clustered together now become an additional signal of purpose and intent. Similarly, the way you market your content in a social network setting, the material it appears next to and the associations made about it, are now something that you will have to carefully think about.

Semantic Search law of proximity

2. The Law of Similarity

The law of similarity states that objects that are grouped together are usually similar to each other. This tends to amplify the collective value of each. The classic example of this is a search for “semantic search” on Amazon that brings up a list of books that are similar (but very different in their approach). The point of a list like that with items grouped by similarity is that there is a strong complementarity amongst them. In a commercial setting it increases the opportunity for additional purchases, while in an informational one it increases page views and time spent on site. From a search engine indexing point of view it allows search to better understand the context of the content that has been created.

semantic search law of similarity

3. The Law of Perceptual Organization

The law of perceptual organization, also known as the Law of Pragnanz states that a grouping of objects or content, however, disparate it may appear, confers a signal in itself that is evident when an underlying guiding has been applied. My Google+ Sunday Read posts, for instance, subconsciously follow the principle pulling together a wide variety of links, videos and images linked by a concept that’s different, each week.

Simplicity of perception is the guiding principle here as seen by the emoticons used in the illustration below. We could see each of them as a collection of punctuation marks used in an inappropriate grouping, however it is way simpler and more meaningful to recognize them as symbolic representations of human faces conveying emotion.

Semantic Search Law of Perceptual Organization

When it comes to your content you need to think of the grouping it comes under as an additional layer conveying value, prestige and reputation. If it is grouped in ways that make it hard to contextualize or access with ease then you are creating confusion in the minds of your online visitors, as well as making it harder for search to quantify it.

4. The Law of Symmetry

The mind is designed to discover symmetries, particularly where groupings of content or objects are concerned. While symmetry works best with visual objects (the Rorschach test image below being case in point) it also works subtly with content and marketing messages and social media network positioning.

Semantic Search Law of Symmetry

When it comes to branding symmetry plays a significant role because it allows a branding message to unfurl without being articulated in detail. Nike’s “Impossible is Nothing” campaign, for instance is just such as example.

When it comes to your content and your marketing messages you need to think of them against a more holistic background that takes into account your target audience knowledge and expectations.

5. The Law of Closure

The law of closure is inferential and arguably a true semantic layer. Closure is the perceptual value that is derived once all the elements of a data set are added up. In a visual setting it allows us to see the IBM logo created out of a bunch of stacked blue lines.

Semantic Search Law of Closure

The law of closure is in effect when you:

  • Organize content on your website
  • Post content in social media networks that supports what you do
  • Market across the web to an audience that is diverse and connected
  • Engage with your audience in a way that helps them understand who you are

The five laws of Gestalt psychology, applied to a semantic search setting go a long way towards solving most of your identity, consistency, trust and authority issues. They make it more likely that you are creating a digital footprint engaging in activities that aid the entity extraction process Google has in place. They help you become more visible by creating a more three-dimensional presence in the digital landscape.

Plus, they aid in generating engagement.