Semantically Speaking, This Changes Everything

Week before last you may have heard that Google is readying the next major refresh of its search engine.  We spent some copius spare time reflecting on that, mostly because a couple of our clients inquired.  So here is what we thought you should know.  Refinements have been nearly continuous for Google, but this next step reported over the course of the week of March 12th begins a shift that will impact the very foundations of how you start and sustain conversations with your customers.

In the ensuing months, using Google search will net you more than just links to their best shots based on ranking.  Gradually, results will also include more pertinent data and direct answers to queries that can be formed more like natural language questions.  Industry experts agree, this will mark the greatest change (and improvement) in Google history and could affect tens of millions of web sites that depend on page ranking.

To put a fine point on this, Google isn’t replacing its keyword search process, which determines the importance of a site based on its textual content, the frequency other sites link to it, and several other metrics.  Actually, Google is refining its engine to deliver more relevant results by integrating “semantic search” technology.  This means Google is adding the capability of its search engine to comprehend the actual meaning of words.  “Semantic search” uses semantics; that is, the science of meaning in language.  This will produce even more relevant search results.  In most cases, the goal is to deliver the information queried by a user rather than have a user sort through a list of loosely related keyword results. 

For digital marketers, semantically speaking (sorry, we couldn’t resist), this changes everything.  And that’s because Google search will begin (and do better over time) to look more like how we humans understand the world.

Some observe that this is the first real movement toward “Web 3.0” or from a content or knowledge stand point the Semantic Web.  Think of it this way:

  • Web 1.0 was the linking of pages
  • Web 2.0 is the linking of people; and
  • Web 3.0 will be the linking of data

This will empower an even more personalized experience for the individual user.   But a personalized experience is only part of this.  From our perspective, this model presents the Web through the lens of knowledge.  There is also the lens of utility.  That is to mean, if the first generation of the web was content-centric, and the second generation is social-centric, then the third generation will be services or utility-centric.  Utilities (i.e., applications or “apps”) are made possible by APIs and web services that enable machines to interact with machines (and not just people) to deliver information management tools.  Both models are creating a more delightful, meaningful, useful digital resource.

Just to frolic and detour a little further, the utility potential is enormous.  Consider apps today like online reservations (e.g., United.com, which will have more to say about at some point, post Continental merger); logistics services (e.g., FedEx.com); bookkeeping (e.g., Intuit.com Quicken online); or emerging utilities like Yakima Racks online “rack configurator” (e.g., Yakima.com).  And that is definitely only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  To this end, the ‘Net is completely re-inventing the applications software industry (really: when is the last time you went to a store and purchased software in shrink-wrapped box?)  We’ve digressed enough.

Back to the higher quality of knowledge consumption, the personalization of experience in the process of search is already happening.  Consider that Google actually personalizes search results.  We mentioned earlier that Google utilizes several variables to determine the importance of sites in ranking.  Similarly, Google personalizes search results based on some 57 different factors or signals that is collects users, including the browser that they are using, where they’re located, keyword searches and browser history.  Two people can each enter the same search term today, but will be presented with entirely different results.  Some suggest that over time, this may not be that good of an idea (to see just how bad, you should definitely view this link when you have a second).  Regardless, tailored search combined with recommendation engine technology and emerging tools such as attention analytics are certain to change the personal experience of the Web, and more importantly here (re-grouping with the point of our post) will forever reshape digital marketing—whether for acquisition or retention.

In short, the Semantic Web (3.0) will be able to compile information for a specific user in relation to specific requests, interests and needs based on a vast data set that could span multiple sites, domains and service providers.  In effect, Web 3.0 will offer true utility to consumers by “knowing” almost precisely what you want.  And it is forecast Web 3.0 will understand the meaning of content and data and relate that to the user’s specific inquiries.  This third generation of the Web presents three issues for digital marketing:

  • More data and more information
  • More consumer-controllable filtering; and
  • Less reliance on brand sites

This means Brands will need to determine their enterprise data, brand data, and other information to be shared in the semantic web.  And it will be necessary to figure out how this data and information can help build, establish, and sustain customer relationships.  The trick here is to recognize how this data can be useful to customers in different contexts. 

In other words, in the 3rd generation of the Web context will be king.  At the risk of falling into another rabbit hole, we defer that discussion for another post.  Just margin note this for now that understanding context will be essential effective brand management, which is saying “relationship marketing.”

Several years ago, doing a fine job of sensing the future, Scott Brinker of Ion Interactive, another one of us marketing technologist types, wrote a fabulous article on the future of semantic marketing.  We offer that assessment, because despite having posted 4 years ago, with the news of Google's infusing semantic search capabilities, we were able to successfully dust off the article and find it 100% spot-on.  For those lacking time right now to surf our reference links, we’ll try to do some justice to his work in summary here.

First, as we suggested at the outset, The World Wide Web Consortium (WC3)—a governing body for standards in building the Web, describe the “semantic web” as being about common data formats that simplify combining data from diverse sources.  (At C[IQ] we’re all about that!)  In other words, this amounts to mapping ideas expressed in human language such that it facilitates automatic processing, where software can automatically comprehend how different pieces of data are related.  And we agree with Scott’s immediate assertion that such sounds a bit too geeky for marketing folks to handle.  And yet, query just who is going to make this happen?  To explain, Brinker poses a bit of a conundrum (quoting from his post):

  1. If the semantic web is successful, it will unleash an enormous wave of information exchange between organizations and individuals, empowering a new level of discovery and compelling knowledge sharing;
  2. In order for the semantic web to be successful, enterprises, institutions and organizations must assign responsibility for their participation in it to someone who will drive it — otherwise the semantic web will settle into semantic soup;
  3. For someone to assume that role, there's must be incentive; in the commercial world, incentive translates directly into acquiring and retaining customers — which begins as a function of some form of discovery and compelling knowledge sharing.

Who is best suited to take on that roll?  Consider that “discovery” as the term is used above is about awareness raising tools, including advertisements, articles, blog postings, interviews, press releases, search engine optimization, etc.  And “knowledge sharing” as used above refers to case studies, white papers, feature comparisons, pricing, product reviews and critiques, etc.  And now you know who, from the enterprise perspective, is going to have that responsibility.  Marketing.

Yet, before everyone dives into semantic marketing, we need to understand that marketing in the semantic web will be very unlike marketing in the Web today, principally based on visual brand engagement.  Of course, marketing (e.g., branding, advertising and promotion, etc.) will continue in a similar manner as does today, but it will be accelerated and powered by semantic technology in areas such as search engine marketing.  

So, what will semantic marketing, or marketing in the semantic layer of the web amount to?  Scott suggests seven areas to be addressed.  We agree, and are already working with clients on these tasks today as a nearly inherent extension of customer IQ work.  Let’s summarize, and again encourage you to go see his article when you have time.

  1. Becoming the champion of data; not just regular old-school product and services data, but deep enterprise data that products and services are built on (without giving away IP assets of course)
  2. Managing data curating; the process of information architecture, structuring, sequencing, and organizing data including its (meta) tagging to maximize its combination, mashing, and discovery.  This is akin to having a “Chief Ontologist.”
  3. Setting distribution strategy; something akin to an SEO+ or perhaps SWO (semantic web optimization)
  4. Structuring incentives; necessary to convert semantic web interactions into real business objectives. This could be the greatest challenge in semantic web marketing, because there is a natural tension between openness and incentives. Achieving the right balance is part of the Enterprise’s marketing strategy. We think (as does Scott) that this is analogous to the dynamics of open source software.
  5. Tracking and attributing distributed data; this includes measuring the impact of the different content elements that contribute to customer and partner relationships. This is likely to be the toughest technical challenge.
  6. Leveraging external data; specifically applying data in your own data mash-ups. For consumer-facing apps, this is where your organization's data inputs and outputs surface into digital brand experiences. This next generation of apps and services will directly serve a highly engaged human audience.  And they will also serve market research, customer intelligence.  
  7. Data governance.  An entirely new level of data governance will be required to protect the integrity of your semantic presence in the Web.  This will require managing (if not policing) all aspects of data use from broken links to mishandled intellectual property.  On the one hand it might be argued that such governance needs to be handled by an audit-class element to ensure checks and balances.  On the other hand, marketing may well be in the best position to manage this because semantic quality control runs to online reputation management—clearly the responsibility of brand management.  And there is no more certain way to slow a process that—because of the speed of the Internet—absolutely must avoid bureaucratic overhead.  And Scott’s article suggests some other reasons.

Of course, at this point, we fear we may have overwhelmed you with a considerable amount of complexity in an emerging CRM and customer IQ issue.  However, the Google news about their search engine evolution triggered our internal revisiting this issue (the semantic web) on behalf of our clients.  And with a little research, we were compelled to bring this to our readers here. 

So consider this:  when Scott’s article first appeared four years ago this month, a Google search of “semantic marketing” produced 665 results.  Performing that same keyword search 4 years later, today produced 11,400,000 results.

In a shameless plug, if any of this has you thinking, perhaps in a semantic sort of way, we humbly suggest you might want to get in touch with us.