Google's launch of the Knowledge Graph and ongoing communication around how it is attempting to move to a new era of search has, rightly, attracted much focus of late.
Until recently, Google has relied entirely on the link graph and keyword mentions to understand topical relevance and hierarchy.
The semantic web, however, works in a very different way, moving from "strings" to "things" as its primary focus. And that's monumental in terms of how the web is served up through search.
While we may be getting all excited about the Knowledge Graph and the inclusion of entity meta data such as the below into search results, we've really seen nothing yet.
It's Just the Beginning
To best understand just how different semantic search could work below I have created an example results page from a future "version" of Google that understands the user's intent:
This is based on a personal search by me asking "what will the weather be like on Saturday?" That's a pretty open-ended search phrase and one that, until recently would have returned very little.
Knowledge Graph and a logged in view of who I am is already presenting me with a five day forecast even today, as you can see here, and this clearly shows progress toward the end goal and gives us a glimpse of the future.
The next phase in the evolution of SERPs is to understand why I may be asking such a question.
To answer that question, Google will need to be able to call on a number of data sources that can tell it about my personal habits and tastes. Whether I write it, or speak it via voice search.
So, for instance, in the example SERP above, rather than surfacing a number of like-for-like results, instead I'm faced with relevant "next step" offerings I may be after next.
From previous search data and social interaction, Google knows I'm a fan of BBQs and that I shop at Tesco. It may also suggest ASOS' "just in for summer" URL, knowing that I might even need a pair of shorts for the occasion.
In short, the search engine wants to present us with all the info we need without continually searching for it. Ads on those pages will be worth a lot more, after all!
The cornerstone of any march to a semantic future is the organization of data and in recent years Google has worked hard in the acquisition space to help ensure that they have both the structure and the data in place to begin creating "entities".
In buying Wavii, a natural language processing business, and Waze, a business with reams of data on local traffic and by plugging into the CIA World Factbook, Freebase and Wikipedia and other information sources, Google has begun delivering in-search info on people, places and things. Processing this kind of info is also the major motivation behind the company's recent joint purchase of a quantum computer. With more than 20 billion facts about relationships between different objects already mapped you need a little more than an Intel processor!
These are the "pins" in the semantic map. Imagine a graph much like the link graph we know but instead of having link "nodes" its points are entities. Your job as a marketer or business owner is therefore to ensure you're mapped, or associated with the right entities. You are relevant.
Why do you think Penguin exists? As much as we might think it is there to condemn businesses to a life of search irrelevance, it might just be the process of cleaning up the link graph so that Google can actually work out your relevancy. By forcing you to remove irrelevant links it makes that process much easier.
What Can You do?
This all sounds pretty seismic in terms of structural change to the way we may market in the future so how can we start to work now to prepare for that eventual shift?
The short answer is to fully integrate semantic association into your everyday process now.
Look to solve problems for your audience, work hard on schema opportunities and other meta data integration, think more laterally in terms of your ideation process and create great content for that is the short answer. Let's look at a few of these now.
While this may sound like the ‘same thing as the semantic web' it's not. Semantic search is usually the name given to the notion of utilizing Meta or micro data to highlight specific information within search.
Google's rich snippets gives sites the opportunity to make their search listing more engaging and visual and click through rate studies have shown improvements of upwards of 15 percent compared to sites not leveraging the opportunity.
It would make sense then to ensure this opportunity is being exploited sooner rather than later as it also gives Google and much more formatted way of being able to extract specific information about your site and its relevancy.
The best place to start to discover what data formats are available to you the Schema.org site contains a full list. This Google help piece also walks through the other options you have at your disposal and here you can see some of the most popular in action.
Is your markup working correctly? Find out with this handy testing tool.
The real opportunity, however, isn't really in micro data at all, but in content.
Google is already beginning to take cues from content around a link in order to establish its relevancy, as opposed to looking at anchor text, for instance.
This starts to give us real insight into how the search engine may begin to understand what we are relevant for simply by the context within which people write about our brand and us.
From a content strategy perspective then understanding how lateral you can go to capture all relevant keywords and associations is critical.
I've written previously about how to integrate semantic opportunity into your ideation process. Within that part of brainstorming, tools such as Freebase (a crowd sourced entity database) and LSI Keyword Tool can help you understand the phrases that are related to the business, or campaign you're creating ideas for.
This process should throw out a number of targeted long-tail opportunity themes and ideas for content that can then be created to take advantage of the long tail. It also helps you to become associated with more relevant phrases from a semantic perspective.
Links could become less relevant as a ranking factor as you wouldn't have to be as obvious anymore.
Instead creating and placing content of relevance on other sites so Google can measure the co-occurrence of your brand term with other relevant terms across the web will be more important as they attempt to measure your ‘brand authority' more by citation and occurrence than links alone. This model will feed the ‘semantic machine' more than links ever can.
Divest Your Interests
As with all major changes there are always winners and losers. It's a fact of life and it therefore makes sense as part of any semantic strategy to begin to open up other digital channels for traffic.
Relying on one single source for all your revenue is never a smart strategy, even when waters are at their calmest. A strategy that includes inbound channels such as social and email should also form part of your arsenal. Invest now in the creation of audiences around those things.
Social itself will also play a significant role in the semantic web.
Facebook Graph search is becoming a key player in ‘entity search', allowing users to search for people and things as opposed to keywords and it will bring a huge amount of opportunity for those brands that embrace it early. It also has the ability to deliver amazing insight for all marketing activity.
Graph search optimization is the new SEO, apparently!
A lot of what has been discussed here is theoretical. We aren't there yet and may well not be for some time to come. But it's imperative that marketers keep one eye on the horizon to ensure that future opportunities are planned for.
It's also clear that Knowledge Graph is the beginning of the journey and the groundwork is already in place, so it can no longer be ignored.
The semantic web will bring with it a lot of challenges for search marketers, but by acting now you can soften the impact and actually take advantage of the opportunity it presents.
Perhaps the most persuasive argument of all comes from Google's engineers. Below is a long but incredibly eye opening video from its recent I/O Conference. It makes it pretty clear where search is going.