There's a book called "The Alphabet Tree" by Leo Lionni. I was reminded of it recently by a fairly quiet but hugely important announcement from Google. In "The Alphabet Tree," a bunch of letters live in a tree. They all hang out by themselves, separate from one another. One day, a strong breeze comes along and blows some of the letters away, and the ones that remain are terrified. They huddle deep in the leaves, never going out.
One day, the Word Bug comes along and sees all this and tells them that they don't need to be just a bunch of letters. They can form words and stick together. They do this and they don't blow away, because they have more strength and solidity. Words are more powerful than just a bunch of letters. Soon after that, a purple caterpillar comes along and tells them it is time to take the next step and create sentences and - in the caterpillar's words - "mean something."
I thought about this book because, it seems, the engineers at Google have moved their technology from matching strings of characters to understanding meaning. I'm talking about the Knowledge Graph and it is clearly the first day of the rest of search's life. The release of the Knowledge Graph may be one of those moments that we look back on and realize that we entered a whole new world.
It is easy and inviting to think of Google as inventing the future before our eyes. Google has a car that drives itself and these funny glasses that beam information into your eyes. Sometimes this can seem a bit hyperbolic. But in this case, we may see that Google has undertaken one of the most important knowledge projects in human history.
What Is Knowledge Graph?
The Knowledge Graph is a massive organization of the data that is inside of Google's index that enables links between related content and ideas. Search has always worked, mostly, by simply matching up strings of letters. If you searched on "Van Gogh," Google's technology would scan through its database looking for that set of letters, in that order: "v-a-n-g-o-g-h." It didn't matter if Van Gogh was a painter, a pub, or a puppy. It just mattered that the letters matched up.
Today, a search for Van Gogh yields a very different result. On the right-hand side of the page is a block of information about Van Gogh the painter, as well as links to other things, people, and ideas that may also be of interest. Inside of the Google database, there is a clear understanding that the string of letters, v-a-n-g-o-g-h, are uniquely meaningful and powerful. And because there is this understanding, there can be exploration. The creation of a map of human knowledge has begun and this box is only the beginning.
What Does Knowledge Graph Mean for Marketers?
Right now, Knowledge Graph means really nothing for marketers.
Actually, it potentially is worse than that, because the block delivered by the Knowledge Graph is in the place where the ads usually are on search results pages. Check out that link to Van Gogh again. Let's say you sell art books or posters and figure that people searching on Van Gogh are likely customers. You are out of luck, at least right now, because there are no longer any ads being served alongside those results.
Marketers, then, need to think more about the long game when it comes to Google and the Knowledge Graph. While immediately there seem to be fewer opportunities to connect with customers through direct searches, there is a new horizon of communication that may be born.
Consider the challenge of search engine optimization (SEO) over the last decade or so. For the longest time, the challenge was that string-of-characters-based approach. Site owners had to struggle to make sure that their pages were recognized as the most important ones containing a particular character string. Over time, the method of determining which pages were relevant (let alone most relevant) has evolved to include things like social signals.
But with the growth and spread of Knowledge Graph, we have a fundamentally different sort of search engine marketing challenge: we must seek to get our products to be a part of a map of relevance. Please note - I am not saying we have to get our pages connected. We have to get our products connected.
That's because Google is shifting its underlying platform from a collection of cached pages to a core of connected ideas. This core will most easily be connected through pages, but those pages are at least one level up from this core of ideas. So the concept "Van Gogh" is connected to the concept of "Impressionist Painters," and this connection is expressed through two pages that are shown in the box on the results page.
This ultimately means that if you don't understand how your products are connected to ideas or consumer desires, you probably won't get into the graph and therefore won't get discovered. Right now, there is no Knowledge Graph box on the results page for "Home Theater." But perhaps there will be one soon. "Home Theater" is an idea. It is an experience that consumers want to have. If your product is connected to that idea and desire, then it could become discovered in a very natural way.
There isn't a lot for marketers to do to their pages just yet. There isn't a clear directive, other than perhaps to take advantage of structured data schemes. The only thing that you can do now is to realize that we have, in fact, taken a very small step into a new future and to begin thinking a bit broader about the ideas that your product is connected to.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
December 12, 2013
1:00pm ET / 10:00am PT