The Stealthy Rise of Semantic Search

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Colin Jeavons
Colin Jeavons
The Stealthy Rise of Semantic Search

The evolution of search technology actually resembles aviation history.  Consider this – Boolean is equivalent to Clement Ader’s inaugural flight across open water, keyword is the Spitfire fighter aircraft that won the Battle of Britain, and semantic technology is a leap ahead to the arrival of the stealth bombers.

Boolean expressions made searches more sophisticated through the use of query modifiers. It became possible to find better results from by narrowing or widening the parameters. Keyword searches match results to phrases that are specified by users, and advanced algorithms made this the dominate approach for Web search engines by assigning rankings to pages with the best user experience. But context was absent.

Semantic search, or entity search, uses machine intelligence to determine the intended meaning of words so searches become more relevant. Advocates, including Tim Berners-Lee, have spent over a decade advocating semantic technologies. They can remake the Web by making it easier to find, share, and interact with information. Change didn’t happen overnight, and questions about its feasibility arose, but the dissonance is fading and innovation is taking hold.

Millions of people are already using semantic search and they don’t know it. Some of the world’s most popular search engines and social networking sites are using the technology to make it easier to make connections, learn, and explore interests. It’s quietly become a part of our lives, and innovative companies are pushing the technology and industry toward new horizons.

So, what changed? Actually, it was users. Last year, 20 percent of Google searches were new, due to the fact that people started typing sentences and paragraphs into search engines, expecting keyword searches to operate like natural language.  Today, user demands for answers to their questions are satiated with innovations like Google’s Hummingbird. People are now searching for “cheap flights to Miami on January 7th” rather than just “cheap flights.” This change in consumer behavior is a significant milestone.

Adapting to Change

Semantic search is a much more comprehensive and powerful technology that can return exact results based on the context, content, and user intent. Consumers are the winners in this new world of search. Today, users are getting access to the precise information they are seeking faster than ever before. The smart phone form factor has influenced this, but people want answers, and content creators are, and will continue to, bear the brunt of the challenges this new technology brings. SEO and SEM strategies that have been used over the last decade are quickly becoming obsolete, and will have a major impact on how content creators draw traffic.

With answers to questions being displayed on search engine results pages (SERPs), consumers no longer need, nor will they want to, scroll through multiple links to find what they are looking for. Does that mean SEO is dead?

In the traditional sense, yes, it does.  The number of users who end up on a content creator’s site will decrease as the nature of search changes. Content creators must adapt their strategies and their business models in order to survive. Google’s recent updates are a good example of why that is becoming necessary.

The Silent Revolution is Underway

A silent semantic revolution is now underway: Bing launched Satori, Facebook launched the Knowledge Graph, and Google rolled out an update called Hummingbird. These all represent successful deployments of semantic search. The potential user base for semantic search is massive. With an additional three billion people expected to gain access to smartphones by 2015, the limits are endless.

Search Engines Morph into Answer Engines

Google’s Hummingbird update began its transition away from keyword-based queries to better understanding intent. That allows users to search more in natural language. Google has also demonstrated its “Knowledge Graph”, a service that compiles information about a query into a view that goes much broader and deeper than its conventional search results. Bing’s tiles provide a similar enhanced display.

These types of “answer engines” provide a better user experience through validated structured data. The results are also ideal for displaying on devices from smartphones to wearable technologies. However, more established semantic search solutions are already available.

“Real search is about providing valuable information when it’s really needed to those who are actually looking for it,” said author David Amerland in Google Semantic Search: Search Engine Optimization (Seo) Techniques That Get Your Company More Traffic, Increase Brand Impact, and Amplify Your Online Presence.

Vertical search engines such as Hakia, Lexxe, and NTENT were at the forefront of semantic technology long before Bing, Facebook, and Google. These engine providers built their business around that potential and are using it to create new distribution and business models to deliver options for content makers well beyond keyword search and SEO.

Advertisers will reap huge benefits from semantic search because it increases the relevance of all forms of advertising. Sniper-like semantic ad targeting ensures precise placement and lowers the risk of ads being placed alongside undesirable content.

For example, if you’re looking at a recipe and realize you need to buy cooking oil, you don’t want suggestions for the least expensive motor oil. This type of search technology can work real-time, even in chats, to make helpful suggestions to users in their communication stream. Who has the best Java? You are now able to search within your app to get the answers.

As search technology continues to evolve, cookies will go by the wayside in favor of ad targeting technologies that infuse semantic capabilities. This will result in creative ads that are based on both the sentiment of an article and a consumers’ perception of its content, all delivered in real-time.

Rise of the Machines

Michelangelo: Creation of Adam. Robot Hand.While it’s evident that Web searches and social media have benefited from semantic capabilities, its future is even more exciting –  it will help make people’s lives easier on a daily basis. For example, if you follow a brand on Facebook, and you see a coat you love and search for it, a promotion for that coat may appear in real-time when you check into that store on your phone.

It won’t be long before machines are able to interpret the meaning of information on a mass scale, as well. Utilizing semantic search, machines are able to present consumers with predictive results through sentiment analysis. This can give consumers access to information that they didn’t even know they wanted or weren’t aware of. For example, let’s say you want to eat Italian but you cannot remember the name of the restaurant you ate at 33rd and 3rd. Semantic search could out-think your own memory and find it. Other examples are even more disruptive.

Industry watchers believe that interconnected devices within the home could be coming soon. That means your refrigerator will understand when it’s running low on a specific item or will be able to tell you what you can make based on the items in your fridge. If it sees you’re missing milk, it could place the order for you and have it delivered. Thermostats will adapt to user behavior and preferences. It won’t be long before the entire household is managed intelligently by machines that will search technologies to communicate with each other.

The Internet hasn’t yet been restructured into a semantic Web, but with the most popular services built on that technology, semantic search is stealthily revolutionizing the way search engines understand user intent, how brands reach consumers with products, and ultimately enriching the web with deeper meaning for a better experience.

Image credits:  © jules –, © Composer –

Colin Jeavons

Colin Jeavons

Colin Jeavons is the Founder and Director of NTENT, a search technology company that leverages its proprietary services to deliver ... [Read full bio]