March 16, 2012, 12:27 PM

Search this: What is Google up to with semantic search?

A new approach to search could both help and hurt advertisers, experts say.

Lead Photo

The search giant isn't commenting, but changes to its search tactics may be coming.

Google Inc.'s move toward semantic search—which produces information to answer a search query and not just links to web sites—raises both opportunities and challenges for search marketers, experts say.

Buzz over Google’s interest in semantic search picked up after an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal noted that Google was working on changes to its search algorithms to defend its position as the leading search engine, accounting for about two-thirds of Internet searches. In addition to its main rival, Microsoft Corp.’s Bing, Google faces growing competition from other ways online consumers obtain information, such as Apple Inc.’s voice-activated Siri mobile search and Facebook Inc.’s popular social network where consumers increasingly share information on products and other subjects that they might otherwise search for on Google.

Microsoft is also working on semantic search, using technology it acquired with its purchase of search technology firm Powerset in 2008. This approach seeks to understand what the searcher is looking for and provide that information. For example, if someone searches for “U.S. population” Google or Bing might show the latest Census Bureau estimate, rather than just providing a link to the Census Bureau web site.

“Semantic search should allow Google as well as other search engines to better understand the true user intent of a search query,” says Kevin Lee, CEO of search marketing firm Didit.

Google—which prefers to say it's building a "knowledge graph" of relevant data, rather than using the term semantic search—says its new approach toward search technology will help it to make search results even more relevant, as it connects the intent of a search query more directly with relevant web content. A search query for information about a Jaguar automobile, for example, should know by the use of other words in the same query that the searcher was inquiring about the automobile and not the animal, and produce search results only on the automobile, according to a source familiar with the company's plans.

“Every day, we're improving our ability to give you the best answers to your questions as quickly as possible,” Amit Singhal, Google’s head of search technology, said in a blog post today. “In doing so, we convert raw data into knowledge for millions of users around the world. But our ability to deliver this experience is a function of our understanding your question and also truly understanding all the data that's out there. And right now, our understanding is pretty darn limited. Ask us for ‘the 10 deepest lakes in the U.S,’ and we'll give you decent results based on those keywords, but not necessarily because we understand what depth is or what a lake is.”

To support its move toward more relevant information more closely tied to search queries, Google last year acquired Freebase, a company that has developed a knowledge graph of millions of interconnected sources of information, Singhal said in his post. Since acquiring Freebase, Google has expanded Freebase’s number of interconnected information sources from 12 million to more than 200 million, he added.

Search marketing experts say it’s apparent that Google is working toward developing its semantic search technology, and has been for some time, as it strives to protect its position as the leading search engine. “Most of us in the search marketing space think this is nothing new,” says George Michie, CEO of search marketing firm The Rimm-Kaufman Group. “Google has been talking about semantic search for years and making progress, arguably, toward better understanding user intent to the point of personalizing results based on past behavior, location, device, etc.,” Michie says. “The feeling in the industry is that this is mostly a public relations initiative to get people talking about Google instead of the new iPad, Siri, and other Apple innovations.”

In the near term, semantic search may not have much of an impact on paid search ads, Lee says. But over time, he adds, it could make sense for Google to run landing page content through a semantic engine to help it determine the most relevant paid search ads to appear in particular search listings. Lee says that the move to semantic search puts pressure on advertisers to ensure that their landing pages are well written and descriptive.

The move to semantic search may also bring risks for Google, which could wind up providing too much information outside of paid search ads, Michie says.

“There is some genuine concern expressed by content creators—people  who put valuable and interesting information on the web— that if Google's plans are to provide answers to user's questions, rather than helping people find sites that have the answers, Google will have effectively stolen their advertising revenue. This is a potential powder keg of an issue.”

Google, however, expects to continue innovating new ways to present paid search ads as well as overall search results, a source familiar with the company's plans says. Although Google isn’t ready to be more specific, future search ads might be made to include more relevant information, tied directly to the search query, within the text of the ad showing on the search results page, he adds.

Kevin Hickey, vice president of Online Stores Inc., will speak on search engine optimization strategies at the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition 2012 in a search marketing workshop session titled, “Not last year’s SEO: New rules to raise rankings.” In another workshop session on paid search marketing, Mike Ryan, director of digital marketing at Lowe’s, will speak on “How to break through the paid-search ceiling with search retargeting.”

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