From Semantic to Semiotic. The next evolution of Search Marketing

From Semantic to Semiotic. The next evolution of Search Marketing

18th June 2014

Cogito Ergo Sum Cat

How many of you, readers, have an educational background in Engineering or Computer Science?

Probably the majority of you.

How many of you, then, have considered at least once that you needed some better understanding of things like psychology or sociology or linguistic for doing your job as search marketers?

Being a skeptic, I think less than a half of you.

But, who will be winning the SERPs competition in the next years?

The ones that ended up going on Amazon because they were curious about those liberal sciences they discarded when they were younger students because they were… boring.


Here’s why:

  1. I see a trend in how search engines are evolving that demands for better “humanistic” comprehension;
  2. Google itself, few years ago, alerted in a conference at Stanford University that they were going to hire thousands of people with humanistic PHDs.

Let me take away any misunderstandings before I continue.

I am not going to claim that, for being a SEO now and in the future, you do not need to have a knowledge in computer science.

SEO still is and always will be a marketing field strongly biased by technical knowledge and understanding, so much that the best definition of SEO for a long time will be “technical marketer”.


What I am going to say is that technology – and Search as well – is already on that grade of maturity where engineering needs the proactive collaboration of humanistic studies for making the next jump forward.

The simplest example is robotics (and we all know how big tech corporations are investing on it).

At its beginning and until few years ago, the biggest issues were related to how to make robots work in a non-clunky way. Now the biggest problem is how to make robots being more human and acceptable, and for solving that puzzle, robotics needs psychology, linguistic and neuroscience, because engineering alone is not enough.

Now let’s try to translate this to the Search Marketing world.

From Semantics to Semiotics

Semantics Answer BoxWhat is the hot topic in advanced SEO? Keywords? Links? No, it is Semantic Search.

Semantic Search is nothing new, but many SEOs discovered it all of a sudden because Google started mashing the throttle in that direction.

It started slowly with the rich snippets’ hook and then it rebuilt its entire algorithm in that sense with Hummingbird, so that major updates like Panda 4.0 can be almost certainty related to it.

Semantics is a fascinating discipline and it is present in Computer Science since the beginning under its facet known as Formal Semantics, which – amongst other things – studies the relation between computation and the underlying mathematical structure of a software (Logic, Sets, Models, and Categories).

If we look only to Search Engines and their algorithms as very sophisticated software, then it should be quite easy to understand why a correct Keyword mapping, Information Architecture, Ontology and Taxonomy were (and still are) essential for SEO and basic elements of Semantic Search.

Structured data, at the light of what I have just said, is only a tool-set for offering to search engines the possibility for better understanding words relations in a web document and between different web documents (and with it, I mean also that anchor texts still matter a lot).

But Semantics is not just that.

Semantics purpose is also to understand what meaning is conveyed through signs and language, especially in relation with intents and assumptions. This kind of Semantics is growing in importance because of the focus given to natural language and voice search.

We cannot say that Google is now taking its first baby-steps in the direction of a full understanding of natural language, but surely, Google is still a (diligent) Primary school student.

Triplets, from a Semantics point of view, are a quite basic rule that we learn in Year 1.

However, Google has an army of quantum computers, so I would not be surprised seeing Google soon moving further Semantics.

Quantum computer

With the continuous effort Google is making in transitioning from an Internet of Strings (just based on the signifiers) to an Internet of Things (entities, both named and search ones, or signified in Semantics jargon), we should soon need to talk of the passage from Semantics to Semiotics in Search.

Semiotics goes further what Semantics does, into implying how every single person (or different group of persons) may relate to signs.

Semiotics is not Linguistic, but very close to it, and it is complementary to Philosophy of Language (with which have many things in common), and collides with other humanistic disciplines that are becoming a needed part of the search marketer’s cultural baggage.

In fact, we can apply Semiotics to everything that carries a meaning: a word, an image, a video, but also the main color of a site template.

Semiotics is about interpretation codes, and for that reason, it has a lot in common with communication, culture and psychology.

Communication and Semiotics

Rhetoric and Theory of Genres are two fields shared by both communication and semiotics.

About Theory of Genres, I wrote in this old but still actual post, so I will not dwell into it again.

I will not do it, also because I consider Rhetoric more interesting for what could be the application of its principles by the search engines.

Rhetoric is the heuristic art of improving writers and speakers (aka communicators) to inform and persuade a specific audience in a specific situation for a specific objective.

Cicero Catalina - Rhetoric

Rhetoric, then, is a set of rules that in literature has been coded as rhetorical figures (irony, hyperbole and synecdoche are just few of them).

Nevertheless, Rhetoric is present everywhere. For instance in motion pictures the shot and reverse shot sequence is a rhetorical figure, as well shooting a movie character from above is head or from the ground.

We could even consider marketing communication a rhetorical form.

Translating rhetorical figures into algorithms – within others things, like finally implementing sentiment analysis for SERPS’ rewriting – could be a way search engines may start to understand the real value of a mention.

It is obvious for us that it is different citing a brand ironically or not, or that linking to a bad source because it is bad does not mean it has a positive value for the users, but search engines still struggles a lot in understanding things like those.

Psychology and Neuroscience

We said that Semiotics is about the interpretation of signs implied by every single person or group of persons.

When it comes to how people interpret things, though, we enter also into the field of Psychology and Neuroscience.

Psychology strongly relates to culture influence and archetypes (well, if you refer to the Jungian vision of psychology, as I tend to do), while Neuroscience is all about the physical reasons why our brain consciously or unconsciously reacts to determined signals.

Knowing them is useful to search marketers for understanding the art of persuasion.

Neuroscience of Storytelling

Storytelling, for instance, is such a promoted communication tactic because there ares very strong psychological and neuroscientific evidences of its effectiveness, and not only because it is cool narrating stories about a brand.

Anthropology and Sociology

We could say that Anthropology stands to Neuroscience as Sociology to Psychology.

Both disciplines focus on human groups, but Anthropology takes into consideration things like biological and natural sciences, while Sociology is totally devoted to the study of human behaviors.

Both complements Semiotics in adding external inputs for better understanding how culture and behaviors influence how humans interpret the same signs in different ways.

This simple phrase can easily let you imagine how much this matters in everything International SEO and Personalized Search.


If you think that for being a search marketer today is enough being very good in computer science, then I warmly suggest you to change your way of thinking.

Search Engine evolution itself is telling us that knowing how to optimize a code is not enough. Being convinced of that leads, for instance, to the actual myth accordingly which Semantic SEO is the same as saying

At the same time we know it not enough to build links.

We must earn them, but just creating a link earning strategy with just “create great content” is simply stupid.

Why a content is great? How to make it great? These are the questions you must ask yourself, and the humanistic disciplines I cited in the post are your tools for answering them.

Humanism is the marketing side of our technological profession.

School of Athens Raffaello

Written By
Gianluca Fiorelli is an SEO and Web Marketing Strategist, who operates in the Italian, Spanish and English speaking countries market. He also works regularly as independent consultant with bigger international SEO agencies.
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