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August 7, 2014

The Scoop on Google Semantics and Semiotics

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Photo Credit: Carlos Luna via flickr

A look at the past 10 or so years of search engine optimization shows both search engines and human ingenuity has come a long way. When the Internet first went viral (pardon the pun), every website was in a competitive and tightly packed race to win the top spots on every search engine results page (SERP). The tactic of choice was as barbaric and effective as a good old-fashioned club. It was blunt, bold, and it hurt—the readers at least. Do you know what the tactic was? That’s right: keyword stuffing.

Bridging the Gap between Man and Machine

We’ve spent years tweaking our content. Real, live human beings read it, but we’ve been absolutely obsessed with those golden SERP spots. The first page only has 10 open spots, and we’re all determined to snatch one.

Since the original means of snatching a coveted seat meant impressing the machine over the man, we created tons of content that…well…didn’t entertain. In fact, a lot of it was so crammed with keywords that it hurt to read; it was virtually impossible to decipher. The resulting reader headaches launched a search and user optimization that has evolved in astonishing and positive ways over the years.

What exactly is search and user optimization? It’s the bridging of the gap between man and machine, the means of creating content that is both search and user friendly. It’s the ultimate win-win scenario and, thanks to Google’s ever evolving algorithms, it’s becoming reality.

Semantics and Semiotics

We’re throwing around some pretty technical terminology. It can feel a little intimidating, but the meaning behind the jargon is fairly straightforward.

According to Mozsemiotics “is the study of the creation of meaning.” Semioticians (or people who look at semiotics) look at everything—literally. They take into considerations the words, images, traffic lights and kinship structures of content. They study what the signifiers mean and how people create meaning from them.

Three components create semiotics: syntactics, semantics and pragmatics. Semantics is, according to Moz, “the study of conventional meaning.” For example, consider the word “orange.” It can mean one of two things: the tasty fruit or the bright color.

Ten years ago, well before Google’s Hummingbird flew in, search engines focused solely on keywords. They weren’t very smart machines because they couldn’t distinguish between an orange and the color orange unless keyword stuffing indicating fruit or color dominated the page. You can imagine how redundant and irritating this was for the reader, who could instantly tell the difference from that orange to this orange based on context.

Hummingbird buzzed in, and suddenly semantics took over. Instead of merely seeing keywords, Google could now look at queries. The semantic nature of search became more obvious and ta-dah! A smarter search engine was born.

But That’s Not All There Is To it…

We’ve all caught up to the latest Google algorithms. We know that the search engine can distinguish context. Keyword stuffing isn’t necessary. In fact, it’s staunchly discouraged and demanded to be replaced with high-quality copy.

Search engines are now capable of associating synonyms, which means there’s no need to say the same thing a hundred times in one piece of copy. We can naturally mix and match with synonyms, relevant words, and phrases to achieve SERP ranking while still delivering an appealing piece of writing for the reader, who is ever thankful.

Semiotics incorporates semantics, but it also uses syntactics and pragmatics:

  • Syntactics (commonly known as “syntax”) is good old-fashioned grammatical rules, form, and spatial order. It’s the structure of properly written and enjoyable content. It’s so built into us that it just comes naturally, and now Google can understand it.
  • Pragmatics is a bit more complex. Moz explains pragmatics well saying, “You…bring a whole life’s experience into any interaction…those experiences shape the way you interpret images and words.” Pragmatics is highly human and relative to individuals. You see, Google knows the dictionary inside and out. It can even learn how you associate something by the search terms you input. But it can’t understand the richness of your personal experience with the word—not just yet, anyway.

Google Semantics and Semiotics

Google’s evolution has created a smarter search engine. Semiotic thinking is ever so steadily bridging the gap between man and machine. Are you incorporating semiotic thinking into your content? If not, then you had better get started.

Search engines are smart, but they still don’t have a handle on the pragmatics used to connect with the audience. What can you do to help populate content that Google can adapt to while you effectively reach your audience and build your SEO?

  • Moz recommends using satire or other humor. Search engine crawlers don’t grasp humor. It’s like telling Star Trek’s favorite android, Data, a joke. He never got it; at least not until his ‘emotion chip’ was invented. Who knows? Maybe somebody Google will have a Hyena Algorithm to teach its robots humor. Regardless, displaying a sense of humor and delivering a few good laughs will make your site memorable and increase audience appeal.
  • Build a lexicon. Speak the language your customers know. Use a lexicon, and carefully consider your audience and what the words you choose will signify to them.
  • Build culture into your Wweb design. The design of your website can either establish a connection with or alienate your audience. Invest time into creating a site that speaks to their ideas of beauty and caters to their way of processing information.
  • Incorporate metaphor. The same old template and stock photos are overused. If you’ve seen it a hundred times, chances are your audience has too. Instead of following the crowd, use images and create a design that evokes a metaphor. It’s likely you’ve invested a good amount of time branding yourself and creating a persona. Let that uniqueness shine through. Own your story with your design.

The Lesson to Remember

Search engines are smart and keep getting smarter. It’s time to let loose the dogs of war—we mean your creative team. Think less about search mechanics and more about creativity because stunning, entertaining, and engaging content is the way of the future.


Julia McCoy is a serial content marketer, entrepreneur, and bestselling author. She founded a multi-million dollar content agency, Express Writers, with nothing more than $75 at 19 years old. Today, her team has nearly 100 expert content creators on staff, and serves thousands of clients around the world. She's earned her way to the top 30 worldwide content marketers, and has a passion for sharing what she knows in her books and in her online course, The Content Strategy & Marketing Course. Julia also hosts The Write Podcast on iTunes.