I’ve written about SEO in previous posts, both the technical side and the essential editorial and marketing work involved. Before I write to you about the latest advance in SEO, it’s important to remind you that technology is not the silver bullet to get you to the top of the search rankings. As I wrote previously:
The bulk of SEO work is actually in marketing, content production, reporting, and analysis. You can’t just hand SEO over to developers expecting them to drive more search traffic to the site, or to magically raise the page rank. A lot of the responsibility belongs to marketing and editorial.
I made a similar point when I wrote about social media marketing: “it’s just the plain old hard work of maintaining a dialog with your community.” In other words, someone has to manage the relevant, keyword-rich content (content marketing), participate in external forums (link-baiting), and in make connections with readers, customers, press, analysts, and industry thought leaders.
But a few months ago, the major search engines (including Bing, Google, Yahoo! and Yandex) got behind an important new standard. The goal is to help the search engines determine what topic you are discussing in your content, and not just what your relevant keywords are. This is very powerful, and it’s also a tech task, so the good news for SEO gurus is there is now another arrow in our quiver: entity search optimization.
There are many good articles about this change, but in essence, search engines have now implemented a standard (the details are at Schema.org) that enables you to tag content with a semantic taxonomy. So for example, if your keyword is “apple” the search engine doesn’t know if your context is a fruit, a software company, a device, or a beverage product.
But by tagging your page with the appropriate schema tags, your keywords become “entities” and you enable the search engine to put your content into the right categories, so it will display the appropriate articles based on the interests of the searcher (which search engines are getting unnervingly good at). This means your content will be in front of the right eyeballs: the demographic that is most likely to care about your product, service, event, organization, or article.
For four years now, my newsroom clients have been accustomed to tagging stories in broad categories: people, places, things, and events. Schema.org standardizes on those as well as several additional entity categories (and loads of sub-categories):
Here’s a set of commonly used item types (from Schema.org):
- Creative works: CreativeWork, Book, Movie, MusicRecording, Recipe, TVSeries …
- Embedded non-text objects: AudioObject, ImageObject, VideoObject
- Place, LocalBusiness, Restaurant …
- Product, Offer, AggregateOffer
- Review, AggregateRating
Yes, it is true that in 2009 I designed my newsroom systems to support these keyword taxonomies. I would like to pretend that I am gifted with the prescience to have anticipated the Schema.org project and this revolution in SEO. But the truth is, I was privileged to have worked with some of the pioneers in semantic web technology in the late 1990’s, so all my CMS systems designs have included some notion of semantic tagging.
Semantic search is about self-describing content, sometimes known as “smart content.” The content is published along with metadata that knows its many attributes. So for example, a “person” in the Scheme.org vocabulary has a name, date of birth, location, title, URL, and other standard attributes. All the content in your web site can be tagged with various predefined attributes, following the markup standard of Schema.org, and the search engines will simply love you.
Paul Bruemmer, writing this month in SearchEngineLand.com, describes entity search as “chocolate to the search engines.”
The presentation of your content in the search engines will also be enhanced by Schema.org markup. Compare these two results, showing before and after I tagged my bio page with Schema.org markup. Because I identified the tag “rich julius” as a person (and not a frothy mall beverage), the second version adds a photo and a byline:
The Schema.org project is just a first step in establishing the semantic web: a way to begin to organize the vast unstructured Internet into something more structured and manageable.
A bit of Semantic Web history:
Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Internet, is credited with coining the phrase “semantic web,” which Wikipedia cites from a 2001 article in Scientific American. Berners-Lee founded the W3C at MIT in 1994, so he was actually fueling a lot of brilliant semantic search thinking at MIT long before the 2001 SA article.
In 1997 I began working with Perspecta, first as partner manager for the Informix venture fund, and later as a member of their executive staff. Perspecta was a pioneer in Java/XML web technology that enabled you to “fly” through 3D universes of smart content based on semantic search. The company founders Lisa Strausfeld, Earl Rennison, and Nicholas Saint-Arnaud were alumni of the MIT Media Labs, and the Perspecta board included the chairman of the Media Labs, Nicholas Negroponte (also founder of Wired). Sadly, Perspecta’s doors closed in 1998, as its president, acclaimed serial entrepreneur, visionary, and author Steve Holtzman passed away from cancer.
But the legacy of that work lives on, if only ephemerally, in Schema.org.