Google’s Semantic Search Changes Coming Soon…It’s What We’ve Been Saying All Along!

Google makes hundreds of changes to its algorithm every year, mostly minor, but some major, that can have a significant effect on traffic and rankings. For marketers, understanding these updates can help provide insight into the changes in ranking and traffic, as well as ways of improving search engine optimization.

In March 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported that Google’s Amit Singhal had announced the impending introduction of semantic search into the Google algorithm. The change will soon be integrated into blended search results in order to provide users with more relevant results.

Simply put, semantic search is the process of trying to understand what an actual search query is trying to find out from the search terms used, and then determining what the searcher is going to find to be the most relevant information, not just a list of websites that are well optimized for SEO. Rather than just relying on matching keywords to web content, Google will attempt to look for context, and the relationship between the words used to make a search. Google will answer factual questions surrounding people, places, companies, historic events etc. right on the SERP. This requires a thorough understanding by Google of the searchers intent and the context of the query – made possible by Google’s Knowledge Graph consisting of over 200 million entities which could potentially “change search forever”.

Businesses are likely to see a drop in CTRs. The Wall Street Journal reports that a Google source has indicated that as many as 10-20% of all searches could be affected by the shift to semantic search, equating to tens of billions of searches per month.

But it’s not all bad news for companies; they just need a change of mind-set when it comes to metrics. As Google begins adding this additional information within the search results, Share of Page on the SERP, rather than CTR, becomes an important metric of exposure, indicating that Google is serving up your website content to answer people’s questions.

My next blog post will highlight what the effects of this algorithm change will have on your website performance, and what you as a marketer can do to minimize the effects. Mediative will also be hosting a webinar in May on the future of search and how these changes from Google are creating a new search landscape.

BUT IS ANY OF THIS REALLY NEW? THIS IS WHAT WE’VE BEEN SAYING ALL ALONG

Semantic search is not a new concept. In fact this is something that we at Mediative have been talking about for years. Back in 2007, when Mediative was known as Enquiro Search Solutions, we released a whitepaper titled “Search Engine Results 2010: What search engines may look like in the future” which included interviews with leading industry experts and their predictions for search engines three years down the road. These industry expert include Marissa Mayer (who at the time was Google’s VP of Search User Experience and Interface Design), Chris Sherman (Executive Editor of Searchengineland), Michael Ferguson (formerly of Ask.com), and Jakob Nielsen (the web’s best known usability guru).

Here are some key points that were made in the whitepaper, written in 2007. While 2010 has come and gone, it’s interesting to see that many of the predictions made 5 years ago are now part of our reality when it comes to search engines:

  • Smarter search engines

A major theme was not so much what search engines would look like but how they would get smarter in the background. Driving this would be factors like personalization and tweaking of algorithms.

  • Personalization

As personalization starts to provide the opportunity to determine relevancy not just by comparing it to a keyword but also comparing it to the intent of the user, this will result in a significantly different level of interaction with the search results page. The introduction of things like personalization and universal search results will dramatically impact the entire world of search marketing. The rules will change significantly and the strategies and tactics used by marketers will have to evolve quickly and dramatically in order to keep pace with the rate of change being seen from the engines themselves.

  • The notion of usefulness being factored into future search algorithms

According to Jakob Nielsen, there is a tendency now for a lot of not very useful results to be dredged up that happen to be very popular, like Wikipedia and various blogs. They’re not going to be very useful or substantial to people who are trying to solve problems. There may be a change and we may go into a more behavioral judgment as to which sites actually solve people’s problems, and they will tend to be more highly ranked.

  • The semantic search engine

Marissa Mayer talked about people marking up search results and web pages and interacting with them in a way that indicated that they found them useful and valuable.

Michael Ferguson said another thing that we are seeing is more and more content is actually going to be surfaced onto the results page when there is high confidence that is relevant. There might be a time you might see people advertising and providing content not just on web pages and blogs etc. but with short discrete self-contained video answers and audio answers that come up either as sponsored or relevant content.

Gord Hotchkiss, SVP at Mediative, has been talking about search engines and predicting changes that are likely to occur for most of his career. In articles posted on searchengineland.com from March and April 2011 he talks about the concept of “master intent”, referring to the use of search engines for a specific task that is actually part of a much bigger and more complex task.

“Web search acts as a pretty simply minded assistant in all this – going out and gathering relevant information based on the words we feed it. But what if search knew our “master intent” and offered a much higher level of assistance, going out and gathering all the information, filtering it based on our requirements and guiding us through the entire process?”

“There is a challenge in our current paradigm of search, built on the concept of relevancy. It depends heavily on the ability of a machine to understand human language. And that is no small challenge. But, perhaps, search’s reliance on parsing language isn’t as critical as it was before. As we do more things online, we leave more signals to help a search engine determine our intent…allowing for a more useful experience.”

“Search has to become more useful.”

With this latest algorithm update shortly to come, perhaps it has.

For Part 2 of this article, click here.

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