Ever since running into a reputation management issue a few years ago that prompted me to write this article, I've been fascinated with the possibilities tied to semantic search. This has driven me to write on various topics tied to semantic search over the last couple of years, but I'm especially excited to be releasing this post. Why? Well, I was fortunate enough to interview David Amerland and Terry Ribb on the topic of semantic search. The following provides a look across key areas of a semantic world as it's viewed by the three of us. 

The Guest Experts:

Terry Ribb - Mobile expert, passionate about semantic search and owner of Relevens Inc.

David Amerland - Author, speaker, and semantic guru

Questions (navigation):

  1. From your point of view, what is semantic search and what makes it different from traditional search?
  2. From a high-level, how does semantic search technically work?
  3. How do you see semantic search changing the search landscape?
  4. What is the semantic web and what does it consist of?
  5. How do semantic search and the semantic web differ, and how are they connected?
  6. What role, if any, do you see strong bradning playing in semantic search?
  7. In the future, how do you see semantic search affecting our careers and day-to-day lives?
  8. What key things should brands, individuals, and we as marketers be thinking about as we adjust to a semantic world?
  9. Final comments
 1) From your point of view, what is semantic search and what makes it different from traditional search?

Terry: In Europe, Web 3.0 is more accurately called the Service Web. Companies use new data-driven
technologies to design services that search, stream, shop, and suggest on each customer's behalf.

Few people realize the extent of the paradigm shift that is occurring before our eyes: Google is evolving from a publisher-centered search engine to a consumer-centered service.

Driven by the knowledge graph, Google's new service can converse with me, understand my intent, deliver answers, personalize results, and suggest next steps.

The impact? When these services are delivered, consumers get what they need without having to search a website. In other words, Google is now a competitor. Service preempts search.

The first step for SEO? Monitor your audience's digital experience—from online query to their mobile activity—and see when Google's service preempts website search.

David: Semantic search attempts to remove the statistical uncertainty in the answers that are supplied at the search engine interface on the web and replace it with higher grades of certainty. Conceptually this is about as radical as it gets. In order to produce that high level of certainty search now needs to understand three things:

  1. Information on the web the way people understand it.
  2. The search query in terms of its intent rather than its words.
  3. The searcher in terms of their search-psychology. This has never been attempted before quite this way or in such massive scale.

Todd: Semantic search is driven by understanding the meaning behind strings, and based off that understanding, generating information to answer of what the searcher is really after. Traditional search is string based and as a result is built around matching string(s) from a query to those in documents.

The potential paradigm shift here is massive as search engines begin to respond with answers instead of possible answers. Watch out for the new competitors on the block to your organic traffic - search engines.

2) From a high-level, how does semantic search technically work (analogies welcome)?

Terry: Search engines were designed around the front-end, the consumer's query. So keyword analysis was the place to start.

Services are designed around the back-end, the service graph, and the way it uses data-linking to generate results. So the place to start: observe data-linked results.


Enter "Dog." Notice the data-linked result:

A wiki page on Dog, a breed selector, and a list of local business that serve dogs (in my neighborhood, I see a dog-walker, a dog groomer, and a pet supply store).

Now, how can you fit into this set of results? Get your local business into the graph and markup your business' entity page to show that it focuses on the entity Dog. The graph will link your business to dogs.

By the example, you can see that you aren't optimizing content for keywords. You're optimizing entities with data to get into the graph.

David: **NOTE** - This answer was edited to include the most relevant information only

It works exactly the same way we see a child develop knowledge and certainty. Their brain's computational power is every bit as good as an adult's (possibly even better) but an adult has the advantage of real-world experience. This narrows down the logic paths available. A child, having less experience, sees more possibilities and that sometimes leads to inconsistencies. Similarly with semantic search, where narrow data sets are concerned or high-profile, high-confidence instances we have an incredibly responsive, intelligent search. The moment we stray further afield, semantic search shows its age by revealing just how much it does not understand even though it knows a lot.

Todd: Semantic search is driven by the search engine's collection of data sets that bring together things (people, places, objects, etc.) with their attributes (IE height, connect to other things, etc.). When these data points are connected and combined with other factors related to relevance and context, results can be returned that are better answers to questions and not simply potential answers based on string matches.

3) How do you see semantic search changing the search landscape?

Terry: Services are designed to eliminate the need for manual, keyword search. As services advance, keyword search will diminish.

Increasingly, brands must fit into these services:

Step 1: Observe data-linked results and see where you can fit.

Step 2: Get your entities—people, places, and things—into the graph.

Step 3: Markup your content to show what entities—people, places and things—your stories are about.

David: Information is relevant to us, but not all information is relevant to us. Some information may be more relevant than other bits of information. Semantic search is attempting to create an always-on, hyper-contextualised search cloud that will always be with us, morphing as our needs change. From a certain perspective that is a little scary, from another perspective it is just plain awesome.

Todd: Search engines are competitors. Google's one boxes, side rail knowledge graph, and everything else are keeping users on Google. For some businesses this is a bigger issue (now) than others, but the fact is, it won't be long before this ability (if nothing else), starts to modify user behavior based on its implementation. That affects everyone.

I believe semantic search will also allow for us to utilize different search/data access points with more fluidity than ever before (wearable's, mobile phones, etc.)

4) What is the semantic web and what does it consist of?

Terry: In very simple terms, two things: A brand's web of things. A service provider's graph that can track those things and link them to other things.

But it is important to realize that each service provider has its own graph—its own extensions to data standards and its own reasoning algorithms that navigate the graph.

So Google's graph is different than Bing's graph or Amazon's graph. A brand must get into several graphs. The brand's marketing team can decide which service channels are important.

Then, the brand's technical team can analyze the data standards used by each provider, and establish markup protocols to get into the graphs.

David: There are two definitions of the term. The more formal of the two is Tim-Berners Lee's version where the semantic web was made of of structured data created by webmasters and website owners. That never came about and interest in it waned as it became obvious, since it was articulate in a "Scientific American" interview with Tim-Berners Lee, in 2001, that it was not really going to happen. The semantic web as it is evolving now is really Google's version of the semantic web as it lives in its index in a structured data format.

5) How do semantic search and the semantic web differ, and how are they connected?

Terry: The semantic web is a actually a set of standards that enable data-linking. As the standards were set, new technologies began to support those standards.

Semantic search engines have embraced the new standards and new technologies. But this is only one-half of the equation. Brands must embrace the standards in their data markup. Or there is nothing for the semantic search engines to act upon.

David: Semantic search takes unstructured data and creates a structured index of it. The semantic web is supposed to be made of structured data in the first instance. The two differ in the degree of formalised organisation of information. They are connected through Google's Semantic Search and the way it is creating a version of a semantic web in its servers.

Todd: The semantic search is about tapping into and perusing the developing semantic web

6) What role, if any, do you see strong branding playing in semantic search?

Terry: It's more important than ever and can be leveraged in two ways:

  • Embrace entity panels:

    Many website visitors arrive after searching on brand name things. Get your brand-name people, organizations, and creative works (such as films or books) into Google's entity panel. Then, alongside the panel, Google will filter content results, so that only content about your branded thing will appear.

  • Move up the content value chain:

    If your website publishes simple information that is now delivered as answers, move up the content value chain. Target aspiring customers, and answer early-stage questions with customer insight and branded advice. This type of content is ideal for sharing and for positioning your author as a trusted advisor that consumers want to follow.

David: Branding has always been about one primary thing: Creating an identity for a company or a product.

The concept of identity is closely ties to that of an entity: a thing or a place or an object that has specific qualities and attributes and properties that make it unique. Just like I cannot be like anybody else in the world, even if they have the same name as me, so does strong branding help create the kind of differentiation that helps semantic search identify the reasons a website (or a product or a brand) is the best answer to a search query.

Todd: It's a must. Brands are identities for businesses and a strong brand will help build important associations for search engines that will allow it to outperform competitors in search results – I believe especially in competitive ones.

It's also crucial as search engines' began to steal more and more clicks from brands that they began to establish ownership of a topic in their target consumers minds so that even if they don't show in a search result, the user will still desire to connect with them when the time is right. I'm willing to bet more branded searches aren't going to hurt either in letting Google know you're important and what you need to be returned for in results.

7) In the future, how do you see semantic search affecting our careers and day-to-day lives?

Terry: Ultimately, we'll each have a personal assistant that can search, stream, shop and suggest on our behalf. But which assistant will it be? Siri? Google Now? Others?

The more control that consumers have over their personal data, the more effective their assistant will be. So, in the battle of the personal assistants, I think the winner will be the company who gives consumers control or their data and control over the assistance they receive.

David: Well, the Internet of Things is just around the corner. Right now, those of us who are aware of the benefits, claim authorship of our content. Beyond the fact that it helps us reputationally it also becomes a kind of on-going CV for us. Now imagine, with semantic technologies, always on, logging the last job a plumber did, or the last building site a construction worker worked on or the last website a coder worked on. Suddenly this becomes a hyper-contextualised way to establish a reputation, find new work, build an identity, find a mate and so on. Data is already a huge part of our lives but it is going to be even more so in th every near future.

Todd: Day to day lives = less searching, more "answers"

Career wise, specifically in the SEO field, it will be very important to understand how other marketing activities, relevance, context, and other factors are affecting where and when a website is showing up, as well as, how to build proper connections between your website and other important entities. Being known as an individual or having known individuals in the graph is going to be important as well.

8) What key things should brands, individuals, and we as marketers be thinking about as we adjust to a semantic world?

Terry: I live in the world of brand strategy and market positioning. The SEO experts I learn from have said, again and again, we're moving from strings to things. But honestly, I'm just now understanding the radical shift this represents. 

If you ask a client to list their brand's entities, you'll see the problem. I recently had one client ask why their story topics and website aren't "things."

David: First, establish who you really are. What makes you, "You". Your belief system, your values, your philosophy, your aspirations. All of these that in the past were nice to know but had no real-world impact, have now become crucially important.For all of us, regardless.

Second, establish what you want to do. We all want, for instance, to earn a living or meet some friends online but that is a generic statement akin to saying that "in order to stay alive we need to keep on breathing". Establish a mission statement that defines you completely and stick to it.

Third, learn to connect at a human level. This is hard for us to do as individuals, it takes time. It is even harder for companies and brands and, dare I say, marketers, to do. Yet without the people angle now there can be no sense of real connection which means that identity and purpose become indistinct and fluid and trust is hard to establish. Without trust there is no business to be had.

Todd: From the (digital/SEO) marketing perspective, I believe it is important to really shift our thinking to be user-focused first, and allow that to drive our efforts and force engines to pay attention to us. If we are good enough, desired enough, and in demand enough, they'll look very foolish if they leave us out of results where we have topical authority.

As a brand, continue to develop your eco system that is built to keep consumers coming back to be involved in what you're doing. The more you can own the consumer and become less reliant on search traffic the better.

As individuals, enjoy the new world and how technology is really growing up!

9) Any final comments or points you'd like to express related to our ever-growing semantic world?

Terry: If you only do one thing, do this: Get your entities into the graph.

David: Semantic search is disruptive. Right now this is not very obvious because things are changing incrementally. But already we have seen how a thing as little as Google+ Authorship is changing the traditional relationship between employers and employees. Business as it was traditionally done is changing. Companies as we traditionally understood them are changing. Ten years from now, maybe fifteen there will be no one who can work or even exist online without having gained a strong reputational value and created a sense of trust, the same way as we have to do offline in order to get anywhere.

Todd: Do what you love, share it with others that love it, and work with others excited about what you're doing to create awesome things.

The Last Call: It's clear that semantic technology is and is going to continue to be a game changer in many ways. We're still so early in its infancy that it's tough to fully understand or predict exactly what might come of it. I hope this interview has provided some insights into how semantic search and the semantic web are forcing marketers and businesses to grow and adjust even now, as well as how you can start to process these changes and what they mean for you.

I'd highly recommend you spend time thinking about how these concepts may have already altered your search landscape as well as how you can began to internally adjust your efforts to develop your brand and establish your business and individuals as known entities in the graph. For now, that's a great place to start.

What things did we miss in our analysis and where do you see semantic search heading? What changes have you already witnessed and how has your business adjusted?


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