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What semantic search isn’t

You may have heard the term “semantic search,” but do you really know what it is? Some people have very big ideas of how computers will understand the meaning of text, but today’s semantic search falls far short of that. Regardless, what’s possible today is still very useful.

To understand how hard it is for computers to really understand the meaning of text, let’s not look at understanding entire documents or even paragraphs. Let’s not even look at sentences. No, let’s start with something extremely simple: noun phrases.
Here’s a simple noun phrase: bath soap. It has a simple meaning, too—soap used in the bath. Let’s look at different phrase now—wood soap. It means soap used to clean wood. And one more: glycerine soap—soap made of glycerine.
Three noun phrases about soap and the modifying noun means something different each time. It’s not easy for software to interpret them correctly, as you might imagine. I don’t think you’ll see software that can correctly interpret most noun phrases for quite awhile.
So what kind of semantic search is possible?
Today’s keyword search can be vastly improved using mere part-of-speech analysis. Consider the law enforcement officer looking for a report on someone driving a Neon car. If it is an old Neon, it was a Dodge Neon. Newer models are Chrysler Neons. It’s likely the police reports that should be found contain neither the words Dodge nor Neon. So how do you do a keyword search? Searching for “neon” alone finds neon signs, neon lights, and other spurious results. Searching for “neon car” likely finds nothing.
Enter semantic search. With a semantic search facility, looking for “neon car” causes the system to look for occurrences of the word “neon” that denote cars. Simply knowing that a car is a noun eliminates almost all spurious results (“neon” is a modifier in the phrase “neon lights”). A bit more smarts, such as looking for forms of the word “drive” in the same sentence improves the results even more.
So even though semantic search is a big idea, practical implementations exist today to improve search results. Does your search facility have the smarts that semantic search proivides?

Mike Moran

Mike Moran is a Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also served as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website,, most recently as the Manager of Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He was a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research and is now a Senior Fellow of The Conference Board. A Certified Speaking Professional, Mike regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide

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