Traffic Report: ‘Semantic Web’ Could Be on the Horizon

One of 2011’s hot-button topics among webmasters will be the growing maturation of the semantic web — and the use of several new HTML5 elements as a potential means of boosting organic search engine rankings. This is an important traffic segment undergoing rapid development — but just what is “the semantic web?”

World Wide Web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee defined it in 1999:

“I have a dream for the web [in which computers] become capable of analyzing all the data on the web — the content, links and transactions between people and computers,” Berners-Lee stated. “A ‘semantic web’ which should make this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines. The ‘intelligent agent’ people have touted for ages will finally materialize.”

While we have come a long way since 1999, the semantic web remains a dream for the future — but a dream rapidly approaching reality with the introduction of HTML5.

What makes this coding standard so important to the evolution of the semantic web is that HTML5 offers new descriptive tags and other features that enable website publishers to better categorize and describe their site’s content and structure — a vital ingredient for search engines seeking to deliver more relevant results.

HTML5 and RDFa (Resource Description Framework in attributes), for example, lets Google, Yahoo and others use rich snippets to more robustly describe the content within its search results — including adding user ratings and reviews into the search listings via the hReview Micro Format (, or other new tools.

The use of Micro Formats, Micro Data and RDFa will contribute to the evolution of the semantic web, make life easier for webmasters and bring content to surfers sooner — and it will do so in a way that is already familiar to webmasters; as it is all based upon the previous generations of Internet architecture, along with robust backwards-compatibility.

There are some differences in HTML5 use as compared to its predecessors, however, even with long-familiar tags. <h1> tags, for example, mean different things under HTML4 and HTML5; where in the former, only one should be used per page, much like a repetition of the page’s <title> tag that describes the page’s overall theme; while under the latter, multiple <h1> tags are allowed, each describing a particular section of the page or category of content.

Although this may seem to reduce the value of the <h1> tag, there is apparently little current effect one way or another in regards to HTML5’s impact on SERPs — a situation that could continue for some time into the future, according to one Google insider.

“In general, we work hard to understand as much of the web as possible, but I have a feeling that HTML5 markup is not yet as widely in use (and in use correctly) that it would make sense for us to use it as a means of understanding content better,” Google’s John Mu stated.

‘As HTML5 gains in popularity and as we recognize specific markup elements that provide value to our indexing system, this is likely to change, but at the moment I would not assume that you would have an advantage by using HTML5 instead of older variants.”

“Personally, I would recommend using HTML5 where you think that it already makes sense, perhaps reverting to HTML4 if you can determine that the browser won’t support the elements of HTML5 that you use properly,” Mu added.

Regardless of any current advantage (or lack thereof), it is clear that HTML5 will help webmasters improve their overall SEO practices by more explicitly defining the purpose and structure of content on their web pages.

For example, by using the <nav> tag, search engines will be able to identify and prioritize a website’s link structure — differentiating between toplevel sections and periphery items deserving less emphasis.

This allows for more accurate website indexing and superior results for search engine traffic-seekers.