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Smarter Searching: Semantic VS Literal

There’s a lot of talk floating around these days wondering if SEO’s days might be numbered, with the question phrased specifically as such: Is SEO dead? No it’s not dead, and more than likely it won’t be anytime soon, but the rules of the game have definitely shifted over the last few months . . . rules that will inevitably alter the way search engines are optimized.

And it all comes down to Google’s new search engine algorithm launched in late March of 2012, a change that has moved away from ‘literal’ searches to ‘semantic’ ones. But even that doesn’t offer much in terms of clarifying the switch . . . what’s the difference between a literal search and a semantic one anyway? Loosely speaking, the world of computerized searching breaks down as such:

Literal Search – (also referred to as a navigational search) Literal searches are fairly self-explanatory, looking for exact matches for some or all of the terms entered in your query, returning matching items whether they’re Web page results, files, specific products, or some other unit of information. Literal searches can be expanded upon with things like stem-matching, conjugates, and association that expand or restrict the search in useful ways — so searching for “bio” might also bring up “biosphere.” Literal searches are what we’re all most familiar with today, in part because it’s the simplest method for computers to perform . . . they’re exactly what they say they are: literal.

Semantic Search – This type of search (the one Google currently uses) differs from a literal search in several ways. (1) A semantic search tries to understand what a user is asking by placing it in context through analysis of the query’s terms and language. This analysis is conducted against tightly pre-compiled pools of knowledge, potentially including knowledge about the user. (2) Instead of just returning a set of files, products, Web pages, or other items, semantic search tries to provide a direct answer to a question. If you ask a semantic search engine “When did the Titanic sink?” it might answer “The RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912 after striking an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton, UK to New York City, US under the command of Captain Edward John Smith,” where a literal search engine would most likely return links to Web pages that contain the words “iceberg,” “Titanic,” “New York City,” and say, “Atlantic.”

Literal searches are perfect when a user is looking for a specific thing, whether it’s a file, document, Web page, album, or product, while a semantic search, on the other hand, turns out to be more useful when a user is looking for specific information, like a date, number, time, place, or name of something like the Titanic example cited above.

No doubt, we’re all moving through an ‘adjustment’ period with regard to the Google search switch but still, it might be a good idea to start studying up on ways to implement ‘semantic tagging’ into our SEO. Now how exactly do we do that? Stay tuned. People are already working on it . . . trust me.


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