The Semantics of Semantics
If you’re going to be talking to a developer about building a website for yourself, if you’re working with a website and you’re going to be working on SEO, you’re going to hear about semantic search. You’re going to hear about the Semantic Web. You hear a lot with this word semantic in it, and they’re not all the same thing. You need to know a few things. It’s all going to go way over your head and confuse you, and you can end up paying for things you don’t need.
Semantic Search and Semantic Web
There are two major different things. One is semantic search, and the other is the semantic web. And they are not the same thing.
This is probably like one of the biggest confusion points. They have the same word and so you might want to associate that they’re kind of the same thing. They are completely different.
It gets even worse than that in SEO because there is this old mythical technology, Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI). People have found papers on this and think, Oh, it’s got the word semantic in it so it must be all about semantic search. This is the secret sauce. No. It’s from the 80s. It predates the web. It’s no use for the web at all. Latent Semantic Indexing was a way of building an index, based on the uniqueness of words and what words were in the documents. If you add one single document, you have to rebuild the whole index around. It’s no use to the web at all. It’s never been used for the web. Anytime anybody tries to sell you anything like latent semantic analysis or latent semantic indexing, they’re a charlatan. They have no clue what they’re talking about. Walk away from that idiot.
Let’s get down to brass tacks here. Semantic just means meaning. Semantics is the study of the meaning of words. It’s related to other things there is a field called proxemics. And that’s about the meaning of the relationship in distance between the things. Downtown you’ve got a lot of the top restaurants, and you’ll have some of the bars. Because people go from the restaurant to the bar, and there’ll be some theaters, and there’ll be restaurants near the theaters because people want to eat before they go; that’s proxemics. Understand that those things have been deliberately placed near to each other. There is a meaning there, and a lot of understanding.
Just think of semantic as a bit like the word context. You know context. We know what it means. It’s the meaning of something changing, according to what’s around it. How we know what we mean by what circumstances, it was said, in what’s around it. Semantics just means the meaning of the word itself.
A semantic web is a different thing to semantic search. Semantic search you’re going to have to worry about, but not much because Google’s doing that. Google’s doing all the hard work. You just need to know enough of it to understand that Google is trying to understand what the searcher meant, not just what words they used.
Once upon a time, Google just matched the query string that you put in with the words on the page. That was all it could do. Then they started to look at whether those words were in links. What if I said palace and I meant house? Or I’ve said theater and I meant cinema? What’s the difference? Well, Google is trying to work that out. It tries to understand that when you say restaurant you may also include diner. You may include pizzeria. You may include lots of other things than just restaurant.
So basically, it’s like, do you really mean that? It’s trying to get around the fact that we all have our own ways of speaking or preferences. They’re partly based on what we like and based on our society. People can use very different words for the same thing.
The idea is to get the true intent, to the meaning through more than the word, it’s the meaning that we’re really trying to get to. That plays into what somebody needs to know when you’re writing a blog, writing for the website. If you’ve got inspector on your page, you’ve probably also got inspectors and inspections. You’ve got it in context, home inspection. These are all things that are giving context, and therefore, semantic meaning to those words. So, Google knows you’re not a gynecologist doing a gynecological inspection. This matters.
There are a lot of different kinds of inspections you don’t do. You’re not going to check people’s tickets. So, using the words to give Google the context, gives you the ability to pick the right searches that relate to your content, rather than other kinds of inspections. That matters to you, but it’s that common sense.
This is mainly a discussion with regards to website development not advertising. In advertising we use specific words like home inspection with different keyword combos and match phrases. At that point what we’re trying to do is play a different game than what we’re driving for on our website. The ads work on a different algorithm. They’re not based on the same understanding.
Make sure home that you understand that the way you dance on your website is different than the way you play the game in your ads campaign. They’re closely related but you can count on Google doing the heavy lifting on the website, but in your ads campaign especially you need to do the heavy lifting.
The semantic web is much more about the different kinds of devices that are connected. You may be aware that now you can buy refrigerators that are aware of what stock is in them and can automatically order top-ups for things you run out of. That requires the Semantic Web. That requires standardized meanings, standardized semantics, so different devices can understand each other.
That plays into the web, a little bit because of the app’s capability for machines to read our sites, and to a very small extent that applies to search. But the whole point of a search engine like Google, is they don’t want to be dependent on you writing specifically for them to understand. Google wants to be able to understand it, whether you’ve made that effort or not, because they want to index, everything.
So, the Semantic Web is not as important for people when we’re talking about things like schema later. These are much more to do with Semantic Web and less to do with semantic search, there’s a little bit of crossover, but mostly that’s about the semantic web.
One place semantic search and the semantic web cross over a little bit is entities. And this is the idea of clearly identifying which thing we’re talking about.
For example, if I searched for Jaguar. I could mean the car. I could mean the sports team. I could mean the big cat. And there are lots of other examples of words with more than one meaning as well. Which one I mean, the search engine has to guess by which other words I might have put in there, with what I’ve searched for in the past, and what the search engine knows about my history. It gets complicated fast. That’s partly why it needs to know entities because then it can separate the results.
What Google will do in a situation like that, is it will try and show different results for each of the possible meanings it knows. So it will try to show a couple that relate to the Jaguar cars and a few that was like the football teams, some that relate to the animals. Then allow the user to pick, because that’s the only way it can be sure.
One of the really interesting things is now Google recognizes when you’re talking about a specific entity, and how other entities correlate. That’s the cool thing about entities. It’s based off of relationships between entities. So if I say, who was the last president in the White House? It understands that the White House is in America. It understands that the President in the White House and must therefore mean the American President. knows the last one was Obama. If I then do a follow-up search, how tall is his wife? even though I haven’t said Obama, I haven’t said President, I haven’t said it, it knows that that relates to the previous search and it will give me Michelle Obama’s height.
All of that came about through semantic search. And the way that Google has what it calls a knowledge graph which is where it builds up this idea of entities and how they relate to each other. Google described it best when they said that they were moving to things not strings.
Originally what it had was a string of characters, and it just tried to match anything else that had that string. Back in the 90s, that was pretty much how all search engines worked. Now it’s trying to understand what the thing is itself; to recognize what we’re talking about and how the words relate to actual concepts.
Sometimes you mis-type something, and Google automatically corrects you. You know, if you, if you’ve accidentally written soap when you meant suit, it will usually be able to tell what you intended from the other queries or even the words that are with it. The content helps it know your intent.
What Google’s doing here is learning about these relationships all the time. It’s looking for the times that things are mentioned together and when it does, Google can recognize this entity keeps getting into this but it also gets merged with that and how they relate to each other.
Where it matters to an inspector is it understands the area you serve; the entity is place, and where it is and what it’s in relation to. And it understands that inspections are a service. And that one’s important because when you do searches for services on Google, it treats those searches slightly differently than a place. When I search for plumber, in any town, it will automatically go to a much more localized search. But also, if I just search for, I need a plumber. Google knows that is almost certainly going to be one within my region. It’s learned from the way that people do searches. It knows that. Plumber is a service, and they usually operate within a radius, so it will automatically narrow down towards the localized results. That’s doing well in Google Local. That’s when it will help you more.
Local search is going to be honing in on your region as closely as possible to get a full set of results. It’s going to depend on how many results it’s getting on healthy that radius will be. because they’re plenty of options, and that’s the easiest way for the machine to scale it.
It doesn’t then have to know whether the area you’re talking about is a small town or a big city, even though it’s learning that way. It’s looking for how many results. If a place only has five plumbers, it’s probably not as big a place. Again, it can change over time as people’s behavior changes. That’s a really good case for having a strong Google My Business presence as it relates to maps because a lot of people start their search on maps and they started on Google. So take your energy there because that’s where you’re going to get the best bang for the buck.
So, staying active is really important.
Right now, during the pandemic, don’t forget to do listings notices with simple things like emailing your reports as a contact-free service ,because right now that’s a selling point. It gives everybody a sense of security and safety, which we need right now.
Disambiguation is telling the difference between which kind of thing we’re talking about. If I’ve got a guy I’ve just hired on my thing, and his name happens to be Brad Pitt and we will have a laugh about it. He’s not actually Brad Pitt the actor. Google might make a mistake. How do we know that this isn’t going to happen? Google is going to be looking at the kind of information about them. The fact that this guy is listed as an inspector working at your firm is going to be a big one. The fact that he’s not in L.A. All of these differences help with disambiguation, distinguishing one entity (Brad Pitt, the actor) from another entity (Brad Pitt, the inspector).
This goes back to what we said about inspections. There are all kinds of inspections, you do not do, and helping Google understand which kind of inspections you do, is a big help to you. Google is trying to do that and just giving it any help you can with disambiguation is going to help it send you better customers.
With consistency, we all have idiosyncratic ways of talking about what we do in our services. And that’s fine. But again, be consistent. Consistency in most things helps people adapt to you. If they’re trying to adapt to you, and you keep changing that can be actually more confusing for them. So disambiguation is about giving them power cards, meaning you’re giving context to it, but also being consistent in that terminology throughout so that people can learn. That’s exactly what disambiguation means.
When you have a system that is consistent and works for you and a client wants to do business another way, you’ve got to decide whether the extra hassle is worth it. Is this adding or taking you out of your comfort zone? And if it is, do you charge more for this? Do you make it clear that that isn’t what you want to do? It’s a marketing decision at the business level. It’s a strategic decision. How you go about dealing with it could be you do a search. This is your format and your other formats will entail this surcharge. That way if they take you out of your comfort zone, you’re laughing because you’re getting paid to meet somebody at a space where you don’t work your best.
You can help clients understand your preferences to work consistently, by stating your preferences. For example, if you prefer text or email, leave a voice message for the phone that states you prefer text or email. Make that distinction.
It’s worth mentioning when you’re talking about your service, how you tend to work. That’s content to have on your site anyway. But also mention that there are flexible options available. Because ultimately, you’re in a service business and serving the customers.
This goes back to something that was on before, if you’re in an area of the world where people like to use the phone, they like to talk a lot, and you’re going to be out of easy contact out on an inspection, make sure you set up your website for them to book a call. Let them know a particular time. You can set an hour when you are able to call. That makes them comfortable. They can do the method of talking they’re comfortable with. And it’s not costing them because you’re calling them. That can make a lot of difference to how many leads you get. They feel heard and in control.
Having it immediately come through on the website, lets you handle it in your own time and the customer knows you’re going to handle it. It’s all good.
There were many different formats for what we call micro data. Micro data is a way of marking up little pieces of data, letting machines know different parts of text meant different things. For example, this block is an address. This is a telephone number. This is a contact detail. This is my web page… all of those kinds of things. Schema is the most popular format of microdata.
Google is behind a lot of it. They do listen to what people are doing and using. There’s a whole community around expanding it. They test things out for what works. And if it’s really useful, it gets incorporated into the main body of schema. It is extensive. It’s not magic, and it’s not something you absolutely have to have on your site, but it can help a lot.
Schema does things like enable Google to have those fancy looking listings where it’s able to understand more for how your website goes together. So it knows that these pages are interrelated. The second most important page. Your contact base. Your telephone number. And it can put those details, sometimes directly into the search result.
You can put schema directly into your website with the HTML code, or people are using WordPress site plugins that do that. It’s not going to suddenly make your page go to number one when it isn’t in the top 10 right now. It’s not going to do that. There are a lot of other things to do. The content you write is going to be more important than the schema you mark it up with. But once you’ve got your content schema, then it becomes more important, because you’ve covered the basics. This is one of those game of inches kind of plays. When you’re down to the game of inches, schema comes massively into play. When you’re still on yards away, don’t worry about schema too much.
Remember Google deals with everything, and it knows that even though you’re dealing with this local store, when you call customer support, you’re getting head office, or maybe you’re even getting a call center in India, and it doesn’t care because it’s still the right number and it still serves the customer. So don’t think that localization of a phone number is necessarily going to be the signal to Google that you would think it is. You’re thinking about your specific case, Google’s thinking about every possibility in the entire known world.
Sometimes we do get caught up in our specifics, and lack context. Google’s got a very different context than the rest of us. It tries to adapt to the user’s situation which is why we say user first. Think of what they want to know. When it is going to affect user clicks, looking for local numbers, that may be a ranking signal. It may not, but it may be.
Schema can be added to any site, it can be written into HTML. It can be done with inline script. So I can literally mark around the telephone number in the code. I’ve got my content as normal and then I can add around it to know which parts mean what. But machines know.
What the plugins tend to do is just stick a lot of stuff in the header. And that’s not as useful. It works like those Twitter cards and Facebook cards, so when somebody mentions your page on social media it does the nice little image and it’s got the right picture there. Well, probably done. And if social media is going to be a major part of your marketing, then that’s important. But otherwise, it’s doing nothing to help your ranking in Google.
Google doesn’t care what you look like on Facebook or Twitter. Facebook has blocked Google from Facebook for years. They don’t want them going through thousands and thousands and thousands of fresh posts every few seconds. That’s not not their thing. Google has instant access to Twitter. It’s the only one they pay for. But why Google does that is they’re much more interested in what’s changing, what’s new, and what’s happening.
Remember what we said about the semantics, the meaning of words – things change really fast. Remember, a few years ago near Hurricane Katrina. The day before that, if I’d searched for Katrina, it was probably the talking about an actress, or the pop group Katrina and Google was giving results for that. But the day the hurricane hit the news that the storm was coming, Katrina, they’re not going to be so much interested in the pop group. Google needed to learn how to recognize things like that very, very quickly.
You know how you get lots of information very quickly that something’s happening, that’s Twitter.
And it affects all kinds of searches. If there’s a rainstorm coming, and I’m suddenly looking for new clothing that is weatherproof, and I’m not talking about wind proofing, I’m looking for the right stuff. So all of these things matter.
There’s a whole field on the context of time and how things change over time that we know as seasonality. The construction industry tends to all be around the summer, although a lot of the demand for it happens in the winter, because you don’t find out you’ve got that leak until the autumn or the winter. It needs fixing but you really want to put all of your roof work to be done in the summer. You don’t want your roof off in the winter. So Google is aware of time and stuff like that.
With schema, you are putting context around your stuff. With the themes, it all tends to be focused on the header. It’s somewhat useful, but it’s not very useful. There are a lot of plugins for WordPress that add schema, but it’s only adding head schema. It’s only making those nice little Twitter cards and putting extra code in the head, that isn’t going to be massive scale.
When you’re speed testing your site, it’s great to have the speed test things. The test site says, it got it in two seconds and that seems like it’s quick to you. Actually, you need to be under half a second, ideally, to be considered fast. The way to speed test your site is to go out with your smartphone to somewhere where you’ve only got one or two bars of signal. Then try accessing your site, because that’s the real world usage.
Always speed test your site on your phone with a bad signal, because that’s when you really know. It will be true or at least 10 to 20% of the people that are going to be at your site. You want to see it in not the most ideal circumstances rather than when you’re at home on your lightning fast internet. Not everybody has that so you may as well get the real truth.
Next, we’ll talk about creating evergreen content. The value of it is evergreen and forever there so it’s worth the thought.
Extend the consistency for your inspection business with a listing on Inspect.com. Showcase your details in an organized presence that’s easy for future clients to understand.
The sixth in a 10-part series of marketing with Ammon Johns dedicated to property inspectors in the United States. He has been variously described by others as a veteran, pioneer, and expert in the field of SEO and search marketing. He has spent over 20 years in all aspects of Internet marketing, working with several leading SEO agencies, helping to launch several of them to industry-leader status. Ammon is best known for innovation, pioneering many of the common strategies of today, and he continues to innovate strategies.