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Entities & Ontologies: The Future Of SEO?

Discover how Entities, Schema, Algorithm Machine Learning advancements, and helpful content shape the future of SEO.

Entities & Ontologies: The Future Of SEO?

This is an excerpt from SEJ’s SEO Trends 2024 ebook, our annual roundup of expert opinions on what you can expect over the course of the next 12 months. 

If one takeaway will keep you on the cutting edge of SEO, it’s understanding Andrea Volpini’s quote about “ontologies.” But I haven’t seen anyone else present SEO this way, and there are key things to understand first, which are themselves complex:

  • Entities.
  • Schema.
  • Algorithm machine learning advancements.
  • What “helpful content” really means.
  • How large language models (LLMs) work.

I’ve organized several expert quotes to expand on the foundations you need to understand how websites must change to organize information effectively.

Then Andrea Volpini will finish the section by diving into “ontologies,” which will propel you into the future of SEO:

  • Standing out from AI outputs to build trust and nurture audiences.
  • Being discoverable within in-platform “search experiences” driven by AI.
  • Aligning your content organization and topical authority with how people and search engines understand concepts and entities.

If I had to summarize these insights in three sentences, they would be:

  • Understanding the “entity” is critical to future SEO success because it’s both a human and a data model of understanding.
  • Lean into exploration and knowledge by making meaningful connections.
  • Developing well-organized ontologies (maps of entities and their connections) will prepare you for success in AI platforms and Google Search, and improve user experiences.

Search Is Becoming A Human-Centered Exploration Tool

Angie Nikoleychuk, Behavioral Data Analyst, Search Engine Journal

Over the next year, I don’t think the big trend will be a tool or a ranking factor.

It will be a question: How do we meet the needs of AI while setting us apart from it?

The answer? Human-centered SEO for human-centered search – moving beyond ranking factors, RankBrain, and reviews to customer journeys and holistic strategies.

If the industry learned anything in the early days of article spinners and directories, it’s that optimizing for the technology of today is an expensive and temporary proposition. 

In 2024, we will see the SEO industry move toward optimizing where search engines and users are going. What’s driving this trend?

AI.

But not in the way you might think.

Standing Apart From AI: Human-Centered SEO

None of us are strangers to content written for search engines. In particular, AI-written content has increased the capacity for people to fill the web with low-effort, low-value content.

In response, I predict that search engines will release more and more spam and useful content updates to try and weed out low-value content.

Some argue that SGE-like search features will be the solution. Some SEO pros will attempt to optimize for SGE in its current form, but I expect changes to it before full integration with search.

Instead, I see the smart move being the trend toward human-centered search.

Of course, search engines are just one side of this digital coin.

Encountering more AI content that fails to meet the needs of end users will inevitably feed the steadily declining trust. As a result, users might shy away from more generic and AI-written content.

So, while this type of content might generate traffic, we will see this content genre start to generate fewer clicks and conversions – at least for YMYL and products and services that require more of a user’s time or money.

What are the best SEO strategies we’ll see appearing in 2024 in response to this? Human-centered ones.

They will consider where the user has been, where they’re going, and their motivations and interests – aspects that AI and search engine-focused content can’t touch. Here are a few examples:

  • Time and Type Segmentation: Where a particular target audience is. It’s a short window, but much like a roulette wheel, it is a gamble that will pay off. (If your keyword research includes the phrase “traffic funnels” or “AIDA,” you’re behind.)
  • Experiences: Not just meeting a need or solving a problem but sharing unique stories and views that turn pages from an online destination into an experience and journey. It’s thinking beyond the click and traffic.
  • Connections: The concept of “strings to things” is evolving into how and in what way those things and entities are connected. Partnerships, collaborations, and connections between entities that go beyond a simple link will be the things that matter.

Evidence for this trend can already be seen in Information Architecture, User Experience, Human-AI Interaction, Information Retrieval, and other related research area trends.

For example, patents and research around systems like the Knowledge Graph have been looking to classify and label relationships to capture the “how” and “why” things are connected for some time.

And those tiny details will turn search from a generic search tool into a human-centered exploration tool in the future.

The nuance of this shift cannot be overstated. The distinction between the SEO of the last few years and tomorrow’s human-centered search is small, but it’s important.

For years, keywords and links have defined what a page is about. In 2024, SEO and search will be about the “how.”


Entity Discovery & Followership

Jes Scholz, Marketing Consultant, JesScholz.com

One trend that often slips under the radar is the growing significance of building a followership on Google surfaces.

This functionality has long been part of Google News. Its influence on visibility is undeniable, offering visibility in the “Sources panel,” the “Following tab,” and the “From publishers you follow” SERP feature.

It is also now present in Google Shopping. By “favorating” specific brands, users set a preference filter on their shopping results, providing additional exposure.

Entities In Google Discover

The real game-changer is that this trend extends its reach into Google Discover. Users can click the bell icon in a Knowledge Panel to follow an entity as a topic of interest within Discover.

Content related to the followed entity then gains prime placement, often appearing at or near the top of Discover in a dedicated “following” feature box.

Discover is already a dominant force on mobile, boasting a dedicated following tab.

Moreover, it’s currently undergoing trials on the Google desktop homepage.

A single placement in Discover could outperform a month’s worth of traditional blue link traffic due to users’ inherent buy-in and interest.

This underscores the critical importance of entity optimization, which is how you can establish your brand in the Google Knowledge Graph and become eligible for entity followership.

To explore the future of followership, get a sneak peek by going into Google Chrome flags and enabling the upcoming follow features and changes to the New Tab Page (NTP).

I predict entity followership will emerge as a brand-level E-E-A-T signal in 2024.


Standardize & Organize Information Based On Meaningful Connections

Martha van Berkel, CEO, Schema App

Since 2011, Google has urged organizations to adopt Schema Markup (a.k.a. structured data) to help search engines better understand website content.

This also allows you to qualify for rich results to stand out in search.

Over the years, organizations have successfully leveraged schema markup to achieve rich results for products, reviews, FAQs, how-to, videos, and more, resulting in higher click-through rates (CTR) and more engaged, qualified traffic to their website.

However, the Google search landscape has evolved further in the past two years.

Schema Is More Than Rich Results: It’s Understanding

In 2022, we saw the performance of video, FAQ, and other rich results change throughout the year.

In 2023, Google changed the eligibility for video-rich results, deprecated how-to rich results from the SERP, and reduced the frequency that the well-loved FAQ-rich results were awarded.

It also released the new AI-powered Search Generative Experience (SGE) in experimental environments.

Other rich results still exist and continue to perform on Google.

But with AI-powered search engines, marketers need to rethink their strategy to stand out in search, thinking beyond rich results due to their volatility.

Instead, marketers should leverage the semantic nature of schema markup and implement it across their sites to help search engines understand how their content relates to searchers’ queries.

In October 2023, John Mueller, Search Advocate at Google, released a search update video sharing how rich results will continue to be added and removed.

He reiterated that schema markup is a “machine-readable code that search engines use to understand content.” He suggested using a schema markup solution to update your structured data easily.

Good news! Schema markup – the same SEO strategy that helps machines understand and achieve rich results – can help you be understood and perform well in the new world of AI search.

Why? Because search engines are shifting from lexical (matching keywords) to semantic search (matching meaning). Schema markup helps define content explicitly, enabling search engines to understand your content’s meaning.

How does this work? By implementing schema markup on your site, you translate your content using the standardized Schema.org vocabulary and define the relationship between things on your site.

This provides specified context about your concepts and how they relate to other things on your site and the web.

As a result, machines can better understand your content, make factual inferences about your organization, and provide searchers with accurate results.

How Structured Data Can Improve CTR

At Schema App, we’ve recently seen a general decline in impressions and clicks across our customers due to rich result changes from Google.

However, we’ve also seen an increase in CTR after applying robust, connected schema markup.

Bing’s Principal Program Manager, Fabrice Canel, spoke at this year’s Pubcon. I infer from his presentation that he also expects new search experiences to improve user experiences as they are introduced.

If markup is managed correctly, users get contextual information in the search engine results page (SERP) before clicking through to your site.

That said, the world of AI search is still riddled with unknowns. We don’t know how it will change top results on the SERP, we don’t have any specific metrics from Google (we do from Bing), and we don’t know how quickly things will change.

So, focus on what you can control, like developing unique content and adding schema markup to be understood by machines.

Let’s capture those clicks, take control, and get more leads by speaking the language of search engines.


Entities Are The New Links

Ulrika Viberg, CEO and Senior SEO, Unikorn

We will see growth in AI, but not only in search!

We will see more AI as enriched data for products, such as more creative product categories based on specific situations.

A category for books to read in the winter can list horror stories, romance, short novels, and classics.

These lists are traditionally curated manually; with AI, they can be generated on the fly efficiently, and SEO pros will love it.

Things will get technical again; On-page will expand to not only H1s and alt-tags, but also, to nested structured data and entity linking, building structured data, and entity link graphs.

With AI, my gut says links will be less important.

Entities are the new links. The Google team has already mentioned that links are no longer as important as they used to be, and I believe AI will solve the “trusted websites” situation without links.


Beyond Entities: Building Maps Of Meaning With Ontologies

Ben Steele, Managing Editor, SEJ

We’ve built the foundation, so it’s time to dig into ontologies. Andrea Volpini provides exceptional insight, but let’s get through a few definitions first.

Ontologies aren’t just a trend; they’re an advanced way of understanding:

  • Your website site and content.
  • How people make meaningful connections.
  • How algorithms make meaningful connections.

Before we discuss how ontologies relate to search, it helps to understand the various meanings of the word ontology.

Ontology is a discipline of both philosophy and information science.

  • As a branch of metaphysics, ontology is most concerned with being, existence, and how beings and events relate to one another on their most basic level.
  • In information science and data management, ontologies are “explicit formal specifications of the terms in the domain and relations among them.”

In plain language and for our purposes, “ontology” studies entities. It categorizes types of entities and seeks to understand how they relate to each other.

The critical point I want you to see here is that the data management version of ontology owes its existence to the philosophy of ontology. Both are about how humans experience and categorize entities.

An ontology for SEO is detailed and explicit, both of each individual entity and the categorization system it falls under.

Of course, defining a narrow category isn’t always easy. The lines get blurry, and different systems overlap, merge, or split into new categories.

Ontologies aren’t pillars; they’re critical to information architecture and semantic technology.

Creating deep maps of connection and meaning is beyond the current capability of large language models (LLMs). But they do use them.

Modern AI-driven algorithms use human philosophical concepts to make connections.

More than standing out from LLMs, constructing ontologies will also help the models return accurate information about your website, as Volpini explains. Understand them now to prepare for Search Generative Experience (SGE).

These are my best tips for functionally applying what you learn from Volpini’s insightful essay below:

  • It can help to think of an ontology as a map of meaning: Create content with an understanding of its place within an ontology and all of the important entities within the content itself and the wider meaning map; then, build those connections using the SEO tools available to you, such as linking, schema, category organization, and site hierarchy.
  • Fully understanding entities and applying ontologies to all levels of your website, from your top menu navigation to every piece of content you create, is the path forward. Building websites for ontologies allows you to: Ensure your whole website is helpful and easy to navigate for users; speak the language of search engines and encourage more robust and accurate indexing of your pages; help LLMs in “search experience” features return accurate information about your website, surfacing your brand in generative results.

Ontologies In SEO

Andrea Volpini, Co-Founder And CEO, WordLift

In an era where artificial intelligence becomes increasingly intrinsic to SEO strategies, entities and Google’s Knowledge (and Shopping) Graph have emerged as pivotal elements.

They bridge the nexus between Search Generative Experience (SGE) and Google’s enhanced ecommerce initiative.

With a surge in AI-generated content and the dawn of AI authorship, you need to develop intricate ontologies if you want to stand out.

Schema markup gives search engines a better understanding of the content on a webpage. Ontologies take this a step further.

With ontologies, marketers and SEO professionals can define more complex relationships and hierarchies within their domain of knowledge.

This leads to better content organization, more relevant search results, and improved quality when the brands interact with large language models and the generative AI stack.

These ontologies transcend the mere facilitation of seamless interactions with LLMs; they will expand schema markup and, crucially, preserve and amplify a brand’s unique voice amidst the vast sea of AI-generated content.

Ontologies Will Act As The Discernible Differentiator In The Digital Realm

Prompting techniques are evolving. Entities – both named entities and concepts – are having a profound influence on transferring knowledge to language models.

This paves the way for the automation of prompt creation and the models’ autonomous learning of optimal prompting strategies.

Furthermore, integrating autonomous AI agents will be strategic for exhaustive SEO automation, where multiple SEO tasks can be conducted with limited human intervention – from dynamic internal links to crawling optimization strategies, from on-page SEO to schema markup.

As these trends will shape SEO, the centrality of entities and ontologies is not merely advantageous but indispensable.

The Rise Of Comprehensive And Interactive Search Experiences

Navigating through the Generative AI epoch, Search has witnessed a transformative evolution, particularly in rendering a more comprehensive and interactive user experience.

Bing notably paved the way in 2017, introducing chatbot integration into Search and enhancing user interactions through innovative conversational interfaces.

Bing Chat and Google SGE are not swift adaptations but a culmination of decades of technological evolution and strategic adaptations in voice search and interactive result exploration.

The transition from “Hey Google” to “Hey Bard” could make Search directly accessible to millions of users, creating new opportunities to build personalized digital experiences.

Anyone with a Google Assistant device will be able to access generative AI and search through voice.

A noticeable shift in search traffic and the increase of zero-click searches, which reached about half of Google searches in 2022, spotlights a transition towards providing immediate answers on search engine result pages.

We’re heading for seamless, interactive, and enriched search experiences, shaping the future trajectory of online user engagement and content discoverability.

I do expect new opportunities with voice search, but overall, a way more competitive environment and a potential drop of up to 15-20% of search traffic on informational queries.

SEO could become more about activating user experiences tied to your brand inside search platforms than driving clicks.

This will require a significant adjustment in how you think about and track SEO performance.

I will leave you with the following that I wrote for an internal presentation:

“SEO is becoming a new frontier in an AI-driven society. It is the bridge between human knowledge and machines.

As we develop more and more AI-powered technologies, it is important to remember that we all share the responsibility of creating an AI that follows well-defined ethical guidelines and respects fundamental human values.

This includes individual rights, privacy protection, non-discrimination, fairness, and non-manipulation.”

More resources: 


Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal

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SEJ STAFF Ben Steele

SEO content writer and editor for 6+ years. Formerly a live theater professional. Bumbling through fatherhood. I’m fascinated by how ...

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