Internet marketers must be like Zen masters–flowing with constant changes down the Google river. Just beyond the river bend are monumental changes as search engines shift to a focus on semantics.

Hints of Big Changes in the World of Search

On a March 10 SXSW conference, Google’s Matt Cutts spoke of plans to “level the playing field” by penalizing (perhaps) over-optimized sites, and focusing on “great content and great sites.” Isn’t thorough optimization part of making great content and a great site? Is Cutts telling us not to keyword stuff? Because we already knew that. No, I think he’s talking about something else altogether. He said that while Google normally doesn’t pre-announce changes, something’s been in the works and is coming soon, and that Google is “trying to make Googlebot smarter. ”

Not long after these mysterious hints, the Wall Street Journal published an article detailing Google’s coming changes and shift toward semantic search. Semantic search utilizes technology that tries to understand the meaning and intent of language. The article cites Amit Singhal in saying that Google has been creating a database over the last couple of years with  hundreds of millions of “entities” (people, places, and things). Search queries will be matched with this database to return the most relevant information. It doesn’t simply round up all of the webpages containing the search terms in hopes that one of them will give you what you need; it actually tries to understand the question and answer it. This shouldn’t come as a huge shock to those familiar with Apple’s Siri technology of the iPhone 4S.

But how far can it go?

Human Intelligence vs. Artificial Intelligence

Semantics is one of the most interesting topics for a linguistics lover to ponder. It helps us to understand the relationship between signifiers, such as words, signs, and symbols, and their meaning. It is the basis of studying and improving communication, to put it lightly. Humans rely on it to live on the same planet together.

Semantic search runs along the same principle. Its goal is to improve search by understanding the human searcher’s intent to contextualize meaning and provide the most relevant possible results. Really, it’s pretty cool. But just how artificially intelligent can Googlebot become?

Artificial intelligence is becoming more and more a part of our world’s evolution, and a serious topic to consider, not just for sci-fi writers and techie experts. A 2009 New York Times article examines the direction of A.I., and begs the question of “where the technology might be heading and, more ominously, perhaps, whether computer intelligence will surpass our own, and how quickly.” The idea of smarter-than-human machines, in fact, is hauntingly called “The Singularity”–a term coined by Vernor Vinge in 1993. Raymond Kurzweil, American author, scientist, and futurist, wrote a book in 2005 called The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. The book discusses, among many things, post-human evolution (which he predicts will happen in 2045). Kurzweil predicts a time in which humans and machines will basically become one, presenting the possibility of immortal cyborgs–in this lifetime. Of course this could go wrong (enter sci-fi writers). There could be a point where artificial intelligence becomes out of control and not how it was intended to be.

Kurzweil is the co-founder of Singularity University, of which Google is a partner.

While We’re Still Smarter…

Let’s bring it back down to (not post-human) Earth. What does any of this have to do with your website right now? Remember, Cutts said this nearing Google-rific change will focus on great content and great sites. Tim recently wrote about Why Schema Should be Part of Your SEO Strategy. Schema is a markup language “that allows webmasters to assign attributes to words on their pages.” Implementing Schema on your website would be a great step in adapting to semantic search from a technological standpoint for the search engines.

What about the content that humans are looking for to answer their questions?

Writing for Semantic Search

Would semantic search change the way we write content for our websites? It depends on how you’re currently doing it. Chances are, at least a little bit.

Semantic search isn’t doing away with the importance of keywords. But you may have over-optimized your content without even realizing you were doing something wrong. In the below video published last August, Matt Cutts explains that you might be keyword stuffing your content, even if you think you’re barely peppering it. The moral of the story? Any more than two or three uses of a keyword could be too much.

Okay, still–we know not to stuff our keywords. What else can you do to write for the semantic web? Hopefully things you’ve already been doing. Here’s a refresher.

Write naturally. The rule is to “write for humans first, and search engines second.” I’m tempted to say, “write for humans only.” With semantic search, writing for humans ultimately is writing for the search engines, who are becoming increasingly smarter in deriving meaning from words. Writing for humans is not hard, because you are a human.

Simply write clearly, and offer your reader something of importance. I think it’s always better to write something informative than something persuasive, simply because good, useful information is persuasive. The truth is persuasive because it’s factual, believable. Keyword-stuffed sales gimmicks are not persuasive no matter how hard they try to be, and they certainly do not answer questions.

Write with awareness. Make. every. word. count. Fluff is your downfall regardless, but especially with semantic search. Every word of your content should have a purpose, a meaning, and a place. Every sentence should benefit the reader and attempt to answer whatever query was typed into the search engine.

Current content writing strategies might be: write to a certain word count (maybe not paying too much attention to how good the content actually is), inject a certain number of keywords (because those are all that matter anyway, right?), and voila!–optimization. This won’t work with semantic search. Pink slime is to ground beef as content cannot be to keywords. In other words, it can’t just be filler to take up space around the good stuff. All of that content needs to communicate meaning. An important aspect of content writing in general, and especially for semantic search, is using related/relevant terms. For example, the keyword “hiking” is related to:

– hiking trails
– hiking boots
– hiking gear
– hiking tips
– hiking health benefits
– backpacking
– rock climbing

…etc. As a writer for the semantic web, you’ll need to think not like a marketer but like a searcher. What would you be looking for with a keyword of “hiking”? This will require a re-thinking of how keyword research is performed as well.

The thing about semantics is that we’ve been mastering it as a species long before search engines were even thought of. We can use that to our advantage as we begin to adapt to a more meaningful Internet.


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