Semantic search might not be a term that everyone is familiar with, but it has already changed the way we use the internet, and it will only continue to do so as time goes on and the technology behind it improves.
When we type something into a search engine like Google, it tries to interpret not just the meaning of an individual word or phrase, but the intent of the person typing it in and the contextual meaning behind elements of the query as they appear in content the search engine has indexed.
So how does it work?
In short, the answer is that the internet is increasingly becoming a series of algorithms. For example, if I live in Pittsburgh and I Google “Penguins,” the first information that pops up is about the Pittsburgh Penguins, a hockey team native to the city, rather than some other thing.
The search engine has access to a wealth of web pages that have the word penguin in their content somewhere, but by looking at the words surrounding that individual keyword, it already knows that we could be talking about birds, an update to Google’s algorithms, or my local sports team. It then takes into account the “weight” of a given association, in this case seeing that my query came from Pittsburg, and assumes my intent.
Then it takes everything it can see on the web with the word penguin in it and interprets the context of the content on every indexed page it can see. Lastly, it returns results based on how well the algorithm feels given pages fit its assumption of my intent, even giving me a nice answer box with the time and date of their next game. This is quite possibly the simplest example of semantic search in action, but here’s why this is amazing:
It’s more accurate and it saves time.
Digital marketplaces are composed of, broadly, consumers and sellers. People search for things they want to buy, and they are directed to a website that can service their needs accordingly. With improved, more intuitive search engines, they are able to go to the specific marketplace they need without a lot of intermediary hassle and clicking around. This makes doing business in online marketplaces easier and more lucrative.
Semantic search is a time-saver on the part of businesses, consumers, and content producers. Businesses now can be assured that the digital marketplace is working more to their advantage, and they are not relegated to “search engine purgatory” as a result of not using enough hyperlinks and getting lost in a sea of ineffectual content.
Consumers benefit because their search time is shortened, as their intuitions and intents play a factor and help the engine more accurately find what they’re looking for, and search engines come closer and closer to being able to actually read content in the same way we do. It’s a win-win-win situation.
It’s driving the shift from link building to higher-quality content marketing.
Link building involves acquiring hyperlinks from others’ websites and linking them to your own and vice versa. Moz.com defines hyperlinks as “the streets between websites.” Search engines use these links as a way to navigate the web. The theory goes that the more links you have to and from your site, the more traffic you’ll get. Link building is a form of marketing that isn’t easy to do tactfully, and there are varying techniques that SEO (Search Engine Optimization) experts use to pull it off.
Semantic search is driving a shift from this tedious marketing to a more high-quality form, meaning that SEO content producers and distributors have to provide clear, user-optimal information in their posts and not just link to random websites. Anyone on the internet has seen the effects of this — spammy websites and content that neither entertains nor informs.
You can look at the evolution of semantic search as the manifestation of market forces demanding a better internet experience where content simply has to add value. A recent discussion from Kreativa goes so far as to say that online marketing should pass the traditional journalistic question of “so what, who cares?” Just imagine tomorrow’s internet, when it simply has to.