Magazine article Marketing

Andrew Walmsley on Digital: The New Semantics

Magazine article Marketing

Andrew Walmsley on Digital: The New Semantics

Article excerpt

The next generation of search engines will understand what our questions actually mean.

In 1895, Paul Otlet set up a search engine in the Belgian capital, Brussels. By 1896, his Universal Bibliographic Repertory had grown to 400,000 entries and would later total more than 15m.

For a fee, the service would answer queries submitted by mail with copies of the relevant index cards. By 1912, it was handling more than 1500 queries a year, and would even notify users if their request was likely to generate more than 50 search results.

Otlet based his system on the assumption that books were an inherently inefficient way of storing information, because the display of facts within them was subject to the judgment of the author and editor Better, he thought, to have an interfiled and classified system of index cards, each of which would contain facts that could be related to one another.

While this might not have created much of a reading experience, Otlet was one of the first people to attempt to codify the relationship between concepts. Thus, he permitted researchers to discover related facts simply by following an index.

What Otlet had invented was a precursor to the hyperlink. The link is the fundamental building block of the World Wide Web, connecting together information in a way that adds a whole new dimension of value to it. It is also what makes Google what it is.

Although the algorithm that determines a site's ranking in natural search results is much more complex, at its heart is the idea that the more sites that link to a page on a particular topic, the more likely it is that this page is authoritative and relevant to the topic.

Links continue to be central to Google's indexing method, and help the search giant to respond to about 3000 searches a second.

As successful as it is, however, Google doesn't really understand what its users are after. Search for 'orange', and the site doesn't know if you are interested in Irish politics, Dutch royalty, mobile phones, fruit, French towns or colours. And because results are based on the connections that other people have established between web pages, they are susceptible to gaming - the manipulation of the results through SEO.

However, Otlet's system relied on more than just links. A human decided what to put on each index card, and a human handled each search. While his system was vulnerable to categorisation errors, it brought human understanding to bear on each query. …

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