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part three: semantic web

Google Inc's logo is seen at an office in Seoul in this May 3, 2011 file photograph.© Truth Leem / Reuters

Increasingly, search is going semantic.

Google's recently announced KnowledgeGraph is perhaps the highest-profile example of this, but across the Web, there's a move away from straightforward keyword search toward a semantic approach that aims to better understand the meaning of users' queries.

For small businesses that want to be found online, this trend toward semantic search represents a real opportunity.

"Discoverability, for a business, is really important," says Aaron Bradley, a Vancouver-based search marketer who runs the website SEO Skeptic.

One way to improve your site's discoverability, Mr. Bradley says, is to add structured data that can be read and understood by a computer – data such as telephone numbers, hours of operation, and customer reviews.

"Whether it's a restaurant website or you sell barbeque parts or office chairs, it doesn't matter. Those data, and the way in which users come to it, are just as important as your website experience."

By marking up relevant information with special tags, you can tell search engines that a particular string of digits is your phone number, or that a particular set of values corresponds to your hours of operation. That's the "structured" part of structured data.

This means that, when coded properly, your website can contain an extra layer of Google-friendly information, which can improve how your site appears in search results. Often, this takes the form of a rich snippet .

If you've ever seen a product thumbnail image or a Zagat restaurant rating alongside a search result, you've witnessed the potential business benefit of structured data.

"Google's semantic technology is predicated on amassing exact details about your entity," Mr. Bradley explains. "That is, your business, the products you sell, where you're located, what other users think of your products and services…all of this [is] structured data. So rather than having it loosely defined, you should structure it so that it can be quantified and returned in search results, so that Google better understands what a business does."

Getting started with semantic data is easy. At its most basic level, adding structured data to your existing Web pages means including some machine-friendly metadata . The type of metadata you add depends on the type of business you run.

Mr. Bradley suggests that small businesses start by looking at , a joint effort by Google, Bing, Yandex and Yahoo! to provide semantic Web vocabularies for webmasters.

Many vocabularies are designed specifically for local businesses. For example, there are separate vocabularies for dry cleaners, food establishments , health and beauty , and many others. For each type of business, you can add relevant metadata: your opening hours, types of payment that you accept,

If you're comfortable editing HTML or changing a website template, Mr.Bradley says a DIY-approach to structured data can work well.

"For a small business, if you were just to go to the local business example page, you could probably work it out yourself and see pretty good results."

Beyond the metadata recommended by, small businesses should also consider Facebook's widely used Open Graph protocol , which allows websites to implement Facebook's frictionless sharing, which Mr. Bradley says can improve your site's sharability and spreadability.

"Someone can do something on my site, which then gets pushed to Facebook or other sites, without requiring that person to leave my site," he explains. "It gives that business brand exposure on Facebook or other linked applications without requiring the user to specifically go to Facebook."

For e-commerce websites, GoodRelations offers a vocabulary for adding metadata to individual product pages. Adding semantic information to these pages can improve how they're presented in search engines and aggregators, though the size of your business is a factor:

"Something like GoodRelations is of most benefit if you're dealing with a larger e-commerce site."

Regardless of the flavour of metadata you add, the principle is the same: search engines love structured data that they can parse and understand. So to improve your chances of appearing in relevant search results, give the search engines what they want.

It's often difficult to make a clear business case for adopting Semantic Web techniques. Right now, semantic technologies can be difficult to wrap your head around, and their effect on a company's bottom line isn't always obvious.

But for semantic SEO, it's easier to measure the payoff and justify the work involved. Mr. Bradley says that click-through rates for rich snippets (Google results that display additional information like phone numbers) are higher than for regular search results.

"So there's now a reason – a very highly demonstrable and profitable reason – for people to opt in to structured markup."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website .

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