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Most companies want to offer their clientele better search results through Google and other search engines. There's a virtuous cycle to locating things on the public Web: Search engines want to display the best results, and webmasters want to make it easy for search engines to find the right stuff.
This goal is a moving target for companies. The correct approach depends on business background and context. As a result, webmasters should periodically audit the "findability" of their sites by search engines. They need to answer a simple question: Are they doing all they can to optimize the search results for their clientele?
Thanks to semantic Web search, it's getting easier for customers to find exactly what they're looking for on the Web. When I search for chocolate cake recipes, I can view the ingredients, ratings, reviews, cooking times and even calorie counts for several options, all on the same page. If I'm interested in a particular kind of restaurant, I can easily find the names, hours, phone numbers and addresses for various local places, often displayed on a map that also estimates the drive times.
Linked data powers these kinds of search results. Behind the scenes, recipes and restaurant listings are no longer just strings of random words, images and other media presented within self-contained webpages. Rather, these items are captured and stored as structured "things." They are tagged with standardized descriptive terms that can be processed by applications to deliver meaningful experiences. Companies need to ensure not just that their content shows up in search results, but that it shows up in a meaningful way that encourages customers to click through to their websites.
Schema.org gains traction
In fact, there is an open standard for describing many things on the Web: Schema.org, an initiative launched by Google, Bing, Yahoo and Yandex in 2011 to provide a Web-wide dictionary of terms and metadata descriptors for search engine optimization.
Schema.org continues to gain traction as a linked data resource. At the Semantic Technology and Business Conference in August 2014, Dan Brickley, a Google engineer and Schema.org evangelist, reported that 6 to 7 million websites are now using Schema.org tags for their content. R. V. Guha, also from Google and another evangelist, estimated that more than 21% of public-facing webpages include Schema.org tagged items. Communities with specialized interests and expertise (such as religious groups and professional societies) can extend the Schema.org hierarchies by adding tags to define new things.
As a result, the Web itself is emerging as a tremendous resource for semantically enriched content. Major search engines exploit this resource by displaying search results about various things as rich snippets, which summarize the content of a webpage so viewers understand whether the result is relevant or not before clicking the link. A rich snippet might include a few lines of text and a photo, business hours, ratings, addresses, phone numbers and more.
Semantic tagging gets easier
To build semantic applications, webmasters no longer need to immerse themselves in the technical details of knowledge representation, Web query languages or other underlying technologies.
Instead, Web content publishers simply need to add Schema.org's definitions to their Web content management (WCM) systems. Among open source WCM platforms, Wordpress and Drupal already support Schema.org editing tools. Site editors can then tag their content with the relevant terms as part of their existing editing processes. A forms-driven editing environment manages the linked data. The knowledge base builds itself as part of the WCM solution.
Moreover, rich snippet viewing is only the tip of the iceberg. With linked data, it is easy to create relationships between things. With the standardized terms encapsulated as machine-readable metadata, it is easy to mash up disparate data sources and produce innovative digital experiences. Schema.org provides the foundations for delivering these semantically enriched applications.
What's next for WCM?
As the digital revolution accelerates, businesses face a seemingly insurmountable challenge: keeping track of all the content they produce on their websites and making it useful. Semantic enrichment is a new tool that promises enhanced accessibility and smarter experiences.
At minimum, webmasters should assess the impact that Schema.org-defined things will have on search results related to their business. They should investigate whether their current WCM system supports rich snippet editing tools. Adding support for rich snippets is a necessary next step along this road and is essential for delivering next-generation digital experiences.
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