For some time now we've been talking about how you can use schema markup and microformatting as a way of providing additional semantic information to search engines about the data contained in your website. Schema markup provides additional context about the data on the page, or the entity in general, assisting machines to understand what's being discussed.
In a sense, this markup provides a bridge between seeing the data and greater understanding of the data. The focus here is on the search engine and giving greater understanding to the search engine entity, but in many ways this is just the first foundational step of your Semantic Search strategy.
According to author David Amerland,
"Semantic search takes into account searcher intent, search query context, search query meaning and subject relevance and delivers results that are highly personalized and revolve around the search engine's understanding of the searcher's purpose when making the query.
This also creates the blueprint for the new type of marketing where brands and products can appear along the path to purchase of the consumer at moments that deliver critical, practical value, something traditional advertising cannot do."
Intent, Context, Meaning and Relevance - four vectors that we can focus on in different ways to implement a strategy of reaching, engaging with, capturing and converting our target audiences.
While search engines often provide a significant amount of traffic (and business) to websites, it's important to remember that the search engine isn't the end user. The end user is the person behind the search, the person searching for an answer to their question. Our semantic search strategy shouldn't be limited to machine learning, but instead be equally (or even more so) focused on providing those semantic connections to our audience, the human beings who are actually making the purchases, and geared towards providing the best response to fulfill their Intent.
So how can we provide semantic data, a greater bridge of understanding, for the end user while also extending our Semantic Search strategy?
What follows are some basic tactics that can be employed, creating those bridges and semantic markup, while being useful aspects of strategies targeting both Human and Machine understanding.
We're starting with online reviews because, in my opinion, they're something that almost any business can understand, while being applicable on so many levels to this semantic search strategy. Using the example of Renew Pilates, a fitness studio, they have a website that discusses their business, their services, and what they offer. But the reviews that their students have submitted via their Google+ Page have added a great deal more to their "search profile".
Take for instance the high school athlete with hamstring flexibility issues, an older gentleman with a changing body and fitness goals, an older lady training for her first triathlon and marathon...
All of these reviews add human credibility, but also add valuable content to the search profile of the studio. Their website might never mention "flexibility issues" or "student athlete", but that content in the form of the reviews all adds semantic value from a search engine perspective, and even better, it can create valuable associations for the human end users that are reading it.
These reviews also play an even more important role in local search where personalization can become a huge factor, as well as a contributing psychological factor when you see an abundance of positive reviews and gold stars.
Staging of Products
Within e-commerce, the schema markup for a product is quite straightforward - take advantage of the Product format. But that only speaks to the Search Engine.
Instead let's look at a real life example that many people are familiar with: the IKEA showroom.
When you browse through IKEA, what you're presented with are products within a family of related products, looks that work together to create experiences. You're seeing individual products, and all of the information about them individually, but also additional related information and related products enabling the same relational metadata, though from a human perspective. In a way, their associations to other products are more important than the products individually. And not only are you seeing relational data about the products together, but you're establishing relational data to your own needs and being able to visualize how those products could fit into your own life.
This greater contextual data layer adds depth and relevance to the individual entities on a human level.
In schema language, these other product associations might be represented by the itemprops of "category", "isRelatedTo" and "isSimilarTo". At IKEA you're being provided an experience based around real life semantic search.
Focused Content Strategy Implementation & Quality Content Curation
Within search engine optimization, many businesses focus on keywords, phrases, and search density as a way of sending clues to search engines that they should be known for those things. But let's look at it from the human side: how can we make sure that our end user makes those associations? How can we build that brand association and topical relevance to a human being?
By focusing our content strategy and providing quality content curation.
In much the same way as our parents used to tell us "you are what you eat", in many ways in the online realm "you are what you share". What you share, how often you share content on specific subjects, and the value that you add to re-shares of other peoples' content all build your audience's perception of you - their human semantic markup. Your brand, your voice, your way of doing things, that all becomes part of the equation. It builds a reputation imprint in the audience member, and that reputation can often be shared become part of your public search profile.
And it's not just the content that you share, but who that content was produced by also is of relevance as it creates bridges of association. Is your business surrounding itself with the topics that are relevant to it, the people whose personal brands are related to those topics, and joining or facilitating conversations on those topics?
The more those topics are discussed, and your company's brand is engaged and associated with those discussions, the greater semantic impact to both human and machine.
Most businesses use social media as a broadcast mechanism, disseminating their content and, perhaps, working on engaging people on that content. The adventurous ones are perhaps seeking out conversations, but again, mainly for the purpose of disseminating their content.
Instead, sometimes what's more effective is social listening, looking for conversations to join discussing topics of relevance to the business goals. The business doesn't need to be pushing content, or even links back to content, in order to facilitate the association of your Identity (and search profile) to specific topics. Yes, this discussion strategy has the additional benefit of initiating relationships and brand recognition, perhaps even growing your audience, but more importantly it builds brand association and topical relevance.
At the same time, by using social listening, you might discover new audiences for your products and services, associations that you didn't know existed, but could be extremely valuable. And just as discussed in the Content Strategy Implementation, your brand's association with topics and discussions create those semantic bridges.
Converting the Visitor
While we've been discussing content means of improving semantic search, in my opinion one of the most important pieces to focus on is something that isn't seen: how well you capture and convert the user. We love to discuss the capture and conversion of visitors because, for almost every business, these conversions are necessary in order to stay in business.
Earlier we discussed the building of a reputation from a human perspective, but we also know that search engines are building a "quality reputation" as part of our search profile and their measuring of the "long click". Our ability to capture and convert factors into our relevance and ranking as the human end users are telling the search engine "this is or is not relevant and valuable" for this query. We've witnessed and documented how conversion optimization and intent can be honed-in on and used to increase reach and positioning.
By continually capturing clicks in search results listings (intent-driven titles and descriptions help significantly), and then keeping those visitors occupied or converting them, the absence of a pogo-stick behavior is reinforcing the search engine's scoring of your relevancy for the query, which may also factor into your site's relevancy for related queries as well.
As I think you'll agree, there is a lot more to semantic search than schema markup and other technical strategies. A comprehensive online strategy that is inward and outward facing, focusing your attention on your audience and potential audience, can enable you to extend your semantic search strategy and give it depth beyond the markup of your content. It's important to remember that Google and other search engines are focused on fulfilling the user's needs to the best ability of the data available to them, while also seeking to build greater depth in their understanding of entities.
As such, it's imperative for you to also focus on fulfilling those user's needs, speaking towards their intent, cultivating a reputation and valuable associations, as a means of influencing the search engine understanding of you.