As a closet geek (my secret’s out!), the semantic web is both fascinating and a little mind blowing. For SEO experts, site owners and marketers the semantic web is creating new opportunities and driving change; but do we fully understand the semantic web challenges that we, as experts, now face?

In this blog, I’m going to be providing a brief introduction to the semantic web, so that we can better understand its aims, the opportunities and highlight some of the major SEO challenges.

What is the Semantic Web?

Very briefly, the semantic web is defined as being a web of data which aims to connect data from various sources, locations, applications and formats to be integrated into one. Similarly, search engines are utilizing semantic technologies for semantic searches, defined by Wiki and Google as

Semantic search seeks to improve search accuracy by understanding searcher intent and the contextual meaning of terms as they appear in the searchable dataspace, whether on the Web or within a closed system, to generate more relevant results.’

The increase in long tail search terms coupled with the need for better precision has meant that search engines have been forced to provide results with greater accuracy. In short, search engines are striving to provide a more personal service to users, and by understanding the intent behind search terms it hopes to serve tailored results to queries. Google is definitely making the biggest progress with this, which is why I will use Google throughout my examples.

So, with the help of one of my favorite bands, Guns N Roses, let’s take a look at the semantic web in action to identify those SEO opportunities and challenges.

The Semantic Web in Action: The Opportunities & Challenges

1. Featured Snippets.

Excluding sponsored adverts, featured snippets appear above all other organic search results in SERPs.

Featured snippet for Guns N' Roses

Google’s featured snippets are typically direct answers to questions. In my example, Google decided to display a snippet of information about the band – in this instance from Wikipedia – because I only searched for the band name, ‘Guns N Roses’. Google, therefore, understood that I wanted general information about the band.

When I searched for ‘how do I form a rock band’ I was then presented with the following snippet.

How to form rock band featured snippet

Benefits of featured snippets

As you can see from both examples, featured snippets include the page title, URL and a link to the site source. Appearing at position Zero (above all other organic results) featured snippets obviously provide great potential for exposure and there are some great examples of traffic increases from featured snippets.

Challenges for featured snippets

There are several challenges with featured snippets.

  1. There is no direct way to influence a featured snippet. These are automatically generated by Google and are dependent on answering a specific question – concisely. Obviously, you can optimize your content to stand a better chance at success but unless your page already appears on page one in SERPs for that particular topic, then efforts are pretty much futile at this point.
  2. Because of the way in which semantic searches work (in Google’s case Rankbrain), information or entities are pulled in from across all sites and can include images, web pages, and other data. I recently came across an example of how this can go horribly wrong for brands and businesses where a featured snippet was pulling content from one site but showing an image from a competitor’s site, apparently linking elsewhere. Ouch!Branded search featured snippet
  3. Some sites that contribute featured snippets have reported a decrease in CTR. When optimizing content for featured snippets you have to apply some strategic thinking. Provide too much information and there is no incentive for users to click through to your site. Provide too little and Google will probably not even consider using your content.

Remember, that a declining CTR is a signaling factor that Google uses to measure page authority. If Google records fewer clicks then the chances are you’re going to lose rank in SERPs overall. So, be warned if you’re going to go after featured snippets.

2. Rich Snippets

Rich Snippets use schema markup to help search engines identify which bits of your content are important. They appear as search results that are adorned with images, star rating and other ‘important’ content. Take at look at the rich snippet produced for my GNR search.

Ticket master showtime rich snippet

Note the upcoming event listings that appear in this search result. This is a rich snippet.

Benefits of Rich Snippets

Google is all about improving the user experience, so if you are able to highlight important information, relevant to the user’s search, then this is going to help with your overall SEO as a result of an improved CTR. Another advantage is that these can be created without any knowledge of code. Google’s Search Console includes a data highlighter tool allowing you to highlight reviews, recipes, event times, single products, organizations and songs. There are loads of other schema-creator tools available too.

Challenges of rich snippets

  1. The biggest challenge with rich snippets comes from an increase in competition. Due to the relative ease of implementing rich snippets, there is a very definite possibility that your competitors will utilize this feature to improve CTR.
  2. The other thing to consider is that when using schema markup there is no way of controlling what information Google decides to show in the rich snippet. If a rich snippet shows content that doesn’t then appear on the page, you could see a spike in bounce rate – which is bad for SEO.

Dedicating quality time to check appropriate markup and schemas being used on your site is therefore essential to ensuring the information seen in the rich snippet is exactly the same as the information on your site.

3. Knowledge Graph

The knowledge graph, or knowledge panel, is probably the best example of the semantic web in action. Pulled in from multiple sources the knowledge panel provides varied information on the subject that’s been searched.

Knowledge Graph entry for Guns N' Roses

Our GNR example show images, song titles, provides a link to the official fan page, gig listings and displays social media profiles.

Benefits of the knowledge panel

Users gain a rich insight into a topic with results collaborated from around the web.

Challenges of knowledge panel

Knowledge graphs seem to favor Google’s own services (Google images, Google+, Youtube) as well as other major social media sites and Wikipedia, so official pages that contain important calls to action could be overlooked if they don’t appear in the Knowledge Graph. This, in turn, results in a reduced CTR, having a negative effect on page ranking.

Be aware that knowledge graphs may also show your direct competitors in a related search section. The challenge here is to optimize your content by making it more engaging. Make your meta descriptions enticing and relevant for the page to keep bounce rate to a minimum.

The knowledge graph represents the evolution of search intent and simply means that SEO can no longer rely on targeting keywords, but should focus more on answering questions. Think about approaching content creation as ‘how to’ guides, ‘Why do’ or comparison guides that directly answer a query rather than sit on the fence.

There are other examples of the semantic web in action, like the news carousel and, the previously mentioned, ‘related searches’.

Google News carousel for Guns N Roses

Wrapping up

As you can see from the examples above Google is dedicated to providing users with relevant information from across the web, even it is to the detriment of the very sites providing the information. Although there are semantic web challenges that we face since the Hummingbird update (Google’s algorithm for indexing pages), Google is ultimately making the internet a friendlier place for its users.

SEO is evolving and many predict that SEO will eventually be less about focusing on targeting keywords and more about tackling customers problems and answering queries. Success will depend on how clearly we can disseminate this information across a multitude of platforms/sites.

As site owners and SEO experts we, therefore, need to focus on delivering genuine content that can help answer queries.

Some final SEO tips for the Semantic web

  • Focus less on keywords and more on context and intent
  • Develop an understanding of your audience and ask yourself the following questions. Who will be looking for my content? What type of person are they? When will they be searching for this content? What answers are they looking for? Use this to create audience personas.
  • Utilize the knowledge graph by being active on Google + to maintain a strong presence, create your own wiki page and continue generating great content that people will share. (It’s about utilizing and disseminating data across a range of platforms and sites)
  • Instead of focusing on attracting traffic on mass, develop unique and explicit content

What tactics do you use for semantic web optimization? What are some of the major challenges you face?