Have you ever paused long enough between keystrokes to think about how strange it is--or possibly creepy--that Google knows so much about you? The world's most powerful search engine has a way of knowing exactly what you're looking for with incredible accuracy. This is the result of a heavy investment in semantic search technology, and it's only the starting point.
Tim Berners-Lee's Semantic Web
As with any global or large-scale movement, there is usually a leader behind the change. In the case of semantic search, you could argue that Tim Berners-Lee is that guy. In 1998--during the infancy of the modern web, mind you--Berners-Lee was already thinking about the idea when he published a report titled Semantic Web Road Map. His introductory sentence in that report read "A road map for the future, an architectural plan untested by anything except thought experiments." Well, here we stand nearly 17 years later and the future is before us, with much more than mere thought experiments backing up the adoption of semantic search.
When Berners-Lee published that report, Google was officially less than a month old and there was no possible way he could ever guess that company would be the tool for facilitating change and giving way to the rise of semantic search. However, if you look at what he wrote in 1998, 2015 has brought all of his underlying theories to fruition, mainly that "The Web was designed as an information space, with the goal that it should be useful not only for human-human communication, but also that machines would be able to participate and help."
The Turning Point for Semantic Search
While a lot happened between 1998 and 2015, you can hone in on 2012 as the turning point for semantic search. It was during this year that 20 percent of all Google searches were new. Furthermore, long tail keywords made up approximately 70 percent of all searches. What this told Google was that users were becoming interested in using their search engine as a tool for answering questions and solving problems, not just looking up facts and finding individual websites. Instead of typing "Los Angeles weather," people started searching "Los Angeles hourly weather for March 1."
While that's an extremely simplified explanation, the fact is that Google, Bing, Facebook, and other internet leaders have been working on what Colin Jeavons calls "the silent semantic revolution" for years now. Bing launched Satori, a knowledge storehouse that's capable of understanding complex relationships between people, things, and entities. Facebook built Knowledge Graph, which reveals additional information about things you search, based on Google's complex semantic algorithm called Hummingbird.
All of these technologies and minds working together transformed the search industry from a mere knowledge repository to a much deeper and sophisticated resource capable of answering questions with remarkable accuracy.
What This Means for Marketers
In the end, while semantic search technology is good for internet users and their search for information and knowledge, it's best for marketers and businesses. As Daniel Newman recently pointed out in an article for Forbes.com, the benefit for consumers is that they're able to find more accurate content, while marketers experience the ultimate "goldmine" of being able to understand current behaviors and how they're pointing towards future purchase decisions.
In the end, SEOs, marketers, business owners, and writers will be able to better do their jobs by driving traffic as a result of sophisticated content customization. It's a win-win situation for everyone involved and the shift--or evolution--doesn't appear to be over. What happens over the next 17 years is anybody's guess.
Tips for Optimizing for User Intent
As a marketer or business owner, your success in the coming months and years will be dependent on how well you can utilize semantic search technology and uncover the benefits it provides. While ever changing algorithms and shifts in technology mean nothing is static, these are a few of the current 'best practices' for optimizing for user intent:
The Future is Now
In the words of Berners-Lee in 1998, "Though there will still not be a machine which can guarantee to answer arbitrary questions, the power to answer real questions which are the stuff of our daily lives and especially of commerce may be quite remarkable." Remarkable indeed.