What is “Semantics”, and What Does it Mean?
Semantics describes the study of meaning, and appears to be an apt term to similarly describe the meaning of information on the Internet.
Semantics, when used in the context of a website, means something similar: that each piece of information, each piece of text being tagged as a certain type of information, every date and time, every person’s name, every phone number should have its meaning clearly picked up and understood by a machine or a piece of code, such as a search engine’s crawler.
What I see as a phone number, a search engine’s crawler or a web browser might just see three digits encased in parentheses, three more, a dash, and then four digits, and it would be blissfully and functionally ignorant of the fact that this string of characters is a ‘phone number’ in the ‘human world’.
Semantics, as applied to web content and data, is the study of ways to rectify this problem.
How Do We Give Meaning to Information?
Historically, meaning has been given to pieces of text on the Internet by use of the ‘meta’ tag, short for ‘metadata’. Metadata is a word that can be defined as contextual information about a piece of content, such as an individual page on a website.
A more tactile example of metadata would be a library’s card catalogue – at least if you can remember back to the delightfully primitive days before computerized databases were installed in libraries en masse.
Each card in those drawers represents a book that exists within the library, and has the name of the book, the author, the subject, and the Dewey decimal system subject category number.
The card for a book is not the book itself, but it describes the book in a way that it can be found – the information on the card gave the book a meaning that could be understood by the ‘process’ or ‘mechanism’ of finding a book using the card catalogue.
The meaning conveyed by the card catalogue, that allows one to find a book in a library, is only an identifier for a book – that description is not necessarily included in the contents of the book itself.
In a similar manner, meta tags have been used to give a webpage a meaning that could be ‘understood’ and acted upon by a process or mechanism depending on the nature of that meaning.
The words or their meaning in the meta data do not affect or appear in the content that they describe – they merely describe the content just enough to help them be handled by a process that, like the library card catalogue, most often involves finding that content.
Meta tags were originally used in the form of HTML <meta> elements with attributes like ‘keywords’, ‘description’, and ‘author’.
The words used in those tags were not part of the human-visible content on the webpage they described, but they did assist search engine crawlers in describing them just enough to figure out whether or not they had anything to do with a user’s search query. In some cases, they still do.
Over the years, innovations have come about and progress has been made in finding ways to describe content in a better and more detailed manner. From ‘alt’ attributes describing what is depicted in a particular image, to XML, RDF, microformats, Dublin Core metadata, and HTML5, these descriptions of content are becoming more and more detailed, and consequently more and more useful.
Meaningful Data is Web 3.0
I’m starting to think that next big innovation online, other than ‘Big Data’ (the relation of massively huge sets of data to one another to make deeper insights possible), is ‘Meaningful Data’.
When every image, every address, every name, every phone number, every product and its description – every single piece of data online is tagged with metadata that describes what it is in a manner that permits automated processes and programs to ‘know’ what it is, and then also ‘know’ how to use it or how to present it, amazing things will become possible.
The relevance, accuracy, and usefulness of search engine results, for instance, would surely skyrocket as search engine crawlers would become able to describe pages in much further detail than ever before.
Of course, the awesome potential of Meaningful Data can only be fully harnessed as long as everyone is honest about describing their data, and can agree on a single standard structure or schema for the metadata to follow.
What’s the meaning of life? Just look at its metadata: language.
Check out Ani Lopez’s blog post setting out SEO guidelines to follow when creating content for e-commerce websites for an example of how semantics and metadata can affect SEO.