Google has famously announced that semantic search is the transition of search and the web from "strings to things" and "websites to people" respectively. To quantify this change, consider that the web is being transformed from a place where anonymity and unaccountability were virtually synonymous and practically guaranteed, to a place where trust, authority and reputation are the only attributes that really matter.
You may want to argue here that as far as journalism and journalists were concerned these are attributes that have always been in play and yes, offline this is certainly the case. It did not, however, carry well to the digital realm. Certainly, star players have always been sought after because the quality of their writing has always carried weight, but good writing is (still) easy to find and a journalist's reach and impact was always achieved through the power of the platform they were on.
A New York Times article, for instance, carried way more influence and authority than a Croydon Advertiser one, even if the latter was every bit as well-written, researched and argued as the former. That's because the nyt.com website carried all the trust, authority and reputation in search – based on a variety of signals including traffic and audience reach – and those whose writing was accessed through it, were anointed with it. Well, this bit is changing and it's changing because of search.
While news organisations are still struggling to come to terms with Google and its disproportionate, in their view, ability to help their content be found, the search giant's launch of semantic search, essentially a transformation of the largely unstructured data that's found on the web into highly structured data inside its search index, is changing the way we consume information. Instead of the familiar "ten little blue links" that were graded in terms of statistical probability in being the answer to a search query, it now serves results that are either an outright answer or simply lead to one.
Veracity and the human factor
To achieve this, Google uses a detailed mapping of the "social signal" that's generated by individuals across the social web to create a very granular picture of who they are, what they do and their level of expertise. Simply put, the search engine applies on the web criteria of trust, authority and reputation similar to the ones that we have long applied in the offline world, using the social signature of personal profiles as a veracity filter for its results.
This 'simple' move, however, also removes authority from websites and places it squarely upon their users. The New York Times, historically a sought-after home, suffered a blow when Nate Silver took his blog and its contents to the ESPN network. In the eyes of search, Nate Silver, the blogger, has much more authority, credibility and trust than the New York Times website because his social signal (which can be mapped) is way stronger and more complicated than the New York Times' which, like most companies, is finding engagement on the social web to be a tough nut to crack.
Many traditional news organisations have kept their writers under tight control, carefully keeping them away from social media. Yet, now, it is these same journalists that have the ability to drive eyeballs to the news sites they write for. And it is these same journalists who, through their aggregated authority, can make one online news site differ from another.
If this sounds like the semantic web is like the offline world of yesteryear it's because partially it is. Connectivity and transparency, reputation and trust are now computable attributes. As such they also have real monetary value and the ability to change the balance of power from news organisations that frequently used the fact that good writing was easy to find to keep their workforce under control, to the writers and journalists who, having invested the time and effort required to build an online profile, now have the ability to help a site rise in search or, by leaving it, cause it to tank.
The web has been a disruptive influence for the news industry but the disruption it has seen to date is nothing compared to what's coming in the semantic web.
David Amerland's latest book is Google Semidden text.antic Search: Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Techniques That Get Your Company More Traffic, Increase Brand Impact and Amplify Your Online Presence. (http://goo.gl/dNp0rY) His involvement with the Web goes back to the days when the number of websites in existence could fit in a printed 80-page directory and SEO consisted of keyword stuffing and pixel-wide hidden text