Search has changed dramatically over the past year and semantic technology has been at the center of it all. Consumers increasingly expect search engines to understand natural language and perceive the intent behind the words they type in, and search engine algorithms are rising to this challenge. This evolution in search has dramatic implications for marketers, consumers, technology developers and content creators — and it’s still the early days for this rapidly changing environment. Here is an overview of how search technology is changing, how these changes may affect you and what you can do to market your business more effectively in the new era of search.
What Is Semantic Technology?
The word “semantic” refers to meaning. According to Search Engine Journal, semantic search (also known as “entity search”) “uses machine intelligence to determine the intended meaning of words so searches become more relevant.” Semantic technology has been gradually introduced in recent years, offering users easier access to the information and connections they’re seeking. Without even knowing it, consumers are using more natural speech in their search queries and they EXPECT to be understood. As Search Insider puts it, the goal is to “focus less on keywords and more on intent-based collective intelligence.”
No longer focused on just keywords or even phrases, Internet search has evolved to employ a new level of sophistication, the so-called semantic search engine. From now on, Internet surfers will be able to search based on “entities”; in simple terms, persons, places and things. These entity searches will reveal far more about the topic being researched than was possible before. For example, instead of just directing you to a prominent contemporary person you may be researching, Bing’s “Satori” will link you to any and all ”Talks” that person has delivered.
Google’s new “Hummingbird” algorithm allows the user to conduct what Google calls “conversational searches”. By this they mean that the search engine will take an entire sentence into account, not just the words in the sentence. So, instead of directing you to the nearest pizza restaurant, you’ll be directed to the nearest pizza restaurant that’s currently open, has the special ingredients you want and offers a promotion to new and returning customers, or whatever else you type into the search bar. The search engine strives to understand not just the words, but their context, hence the term semantic search.
The New World of Search Engines
Schema.org: Bing, Yahoo and Google recognize that in order to adapt to the new search landscape, they would have to put competition aside and engage in some collaboration. In 2011, they jointly launched the Schema.org initiative. Schema defines a new set of HTML terms which can be added to a web page’s markup. They will be used as clues to the meaning of that page, and will assist search engines to recognize specific people, events, attributes, and so on. For example, if a webpage contains the word “pentagon,” a Schema definition will clarify whether it’s about the geometric five-sided figure or the Department of Defense headquarters building.
Knowledge Graph and Snapshot: Google has been increasing the scope of its Knowledge Graph results, which offers users a box on the right hand side of the search results page that provides images and facts that are applicable to the searcher’s intent. Bing’s Snapshot, which functions similarly, was enhanced in 2013 by the advent of “Satori,” which will assist with understanding the relationship between people, places, events and objects.
Hummingbird: In September 2013, Google announced the arrival of Hummingbird, its new search algorithm. According to Google search chief Amit Singhal, Hummingbird represents the most drastic change in search algorithms that Google has made since 2001. He explains in Search Engine Land that Panda and Penguin were updates to the old algorithm, and some aspects of them will continue to apply, but Hummingbird is actually an entirely new search engine, designed for the search needs of today. Hummingbird offers a greatly increased comprehension of the meaning behind the search terms. Instead of just taking a few words from the query and trying to find pages with those words on them, Hummingbird is actually trying to decipher the meaning behind the query and offer results that match users’ intent. The Search Insider blog points out that Bing and Yahoo have made similar changes, though perhaps less drastic. They have geared their searches to respond more to full phrases and to understand the meaning contained in a string of words.
Rising Stars: With the advent of semantic search, an array of new search engines are being freshly constructed. Although their user numbers are microscopic when compared to the major search engines, these new players have the advantage of being able to make a fresh start without worrying about modifying earlier structures. Examples of natural language search engines include: Powerset (now owned by Microsoft), Hakia and a handful of others.
Applications for Semantic Search Augmented Reality (AR): With Google Glass, an overlay (of a map, for instance) is layered on top of the landscape that is being physically seen by the viewer. This will lead to more image tagging and visually based searches. This has a natural tie-in to marketing, since shoppers will be able to look at something and then learn about it (and where to buy it) based on its appearance. However, Google Glass still faces some challenges: It uses a combination of image, facial and voice recognition technology, and that means that a continuous network connection is required because you can’t pack enough processing power into just a few ounces. However, this obstacle is likely to be overcome before too long, and wearable technology of all kinds is just over the horizon.
Search and Mobile: According to Search Insider, mobile search and the birth of Siri have been the biggest catalysts for consumers changing approach to search. Since Siri encourages natural language questions, and people have gotten accustomed to having immediate access to the information that they want, voice recognition technology is increasingly driving Search. The mobile search utility Google Now is powered by natural language, and fits into the user’s life by supplying them with the information they want before they even realize they want it. The expectation of this kind of responsiveness has circled back to text-based online searches, and all the major search engines have made adjustments to meet this demand.
Social Media and Semantic Technology: Facebook has announced that its new Graph Search is equipped with semantic search technology so that users can find the connections they want more easily, and advertisers can achieve more intuitive understanding of users’ preferences. Graph Search also enables far more accurate targeting of marketing, since it can make new connections. For example, a user (or advertiser) can find friends who like X who live in Y. Basically, the new technology provides a treasure trove for data mining, although it too has a few challenges to overcome.
The new deeper data levels are based on people spending more time on Facebook, with broad networks of friends and connections. Also, the public concern with Facebook privacy continues and these concerns may prevent people from “Liking” certain things. Overall, however, the prospects are bright; Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities in Los Angeles, predicts in Bloomberg Businessweek, “Graph Search will grow to about a quarter of Facebook’s revenue, or $3 billion to $4 billion in 2015.”
What are the Implications for Marketers and Content Creators?
In their introduction to Hummingbird, Google states that the new algorithm doesn’t really usher in any SEO changes. SEO success will still depend on simply presenting original, high-quality content. However, the science of marketing is undergoing change in response to semantic search, because improved perception of user intent opens new doors. Users will have far greater success in finding what they’re looking for, and marketing campaigns can drill down to finer and finer demographic sectors based on intent as well as device type, location, history, and so forth.
Graph Search, and its inevitable flock of cousins on other social media platforms, will intensify the networking aspects of consumption, as friendship and commerce become less and less distinguishable from one another. On the semantic web, each user’s identity and intent will become clearer, with the dual outcomes of being more successful at finding what they want and being more findable by the commercial entities who can provide what is wanted.
Penny Herscher, CEO of First Rain, a B2B customer intelligence firm, describes her vision of B2B marketing in the semantic search world. She presents a scenario in which you could see someone at a conference and, with the use of facial recognition software, instantly call up their identity and learn what business they’re in and who their clients and competitors are. Not only that, but you could have instantly available suggestions about whether it will be productive to go over and introduce yourself. Basically, augmented reality is a new relationship between the physical world, including physical face to face interactions, and a world of information that lies behind what you’re seeing. This information influences the way that you will interact with all the worlds you inhabit.
The Direction of Searches and Search Engines
Despite the billions and billions of searches, Google reports that 20 percent of all searches in 2012 were new. It seems quite staggering, but it’s a product of the semantic search rather than the simple keyword search. And the trend will continue. Searches will become faster and more relevant information will be delivered to the consumer. Today, 96 percent of consumers’ time on the Web is spent on content sites. Will that percentage someday reach 100 percent, with time searching reduced to a statistically insignificant number? And, with 35 percent of searches occurring outside of search engines, will your site and/or ads be properly structured to attract traffic from off the search world’s “beaten path”?
There is no definitive answer to all of these questions, just as there is no definitive forecast as to what the future of Internet searching and digital marketing will hold. Will your mobile device detect that you need a haircut and generate a text when you drive past a barber shop? Will your Internet habits allow new algorithms to be developed that will predict your future activities? Certainly, the future possibilities are endless for those who are studious enough to keep pace and agile enough to adjust.
Kerstin Recker is the head of marketing at Vertical Search Works.