Web 3.0 and SEO

Phil Wainewright first used the term “Web 3.0” nearly a year ago, and to date the concept has been even more difficult to pin down than Web 2.0 was when it was first coined. Already the term attracts controversy, with Wikipedia barely mentioning it except to say that there is not “sufficient consensus from the community of Web designers to justify the creation of a new term to describe the next generation of the Web.” Is it real, and what does it mean for SEO?

The question of whether it’s real doesn’t have a simple yes or no answer; the most accurate answer is “not yet.” Pieces of it are just beginning to come into being as the technology starts catching up with our ideas of what we’d like to be able to do. And even once it does exist, it might not be called Web 3.0. This should be a relief to many who are thoroughly fed up with the use of the term “Web 2.0.”

Part of the problem, too, is that there is some disagreement over what this new web will look like. It seems as if there are as many definitions of Web 3.0 as there are people trying to define it! In this article, I’m going to attempt to give you some idea of the common visions for Web 3.0, and how they might affect your job as an SEO. I can’t take the credit for any of these paradigms of possibility; they all stem from my reading on the subject, and have been expressed by a variety of observers.

One way that Web 3.0 might go looks more like Web 3D. In this vision, the Web begins to look like a series of 3D spaces –- rather like Second Life, taken further. The idea is that the ability to interact in a simulated 3D space online opens up new ways to connect and collaborate. It’s hard to say how this would play out (pun not intended); combined with microphones, the ability to control a PC via voice and gestures, and virtual reality gaming features such as goggles that immerse the user in a new environment, it could lead to a totally different way to experience the web.

This kind of Web 3.0 would still have a place for SEO, but it would be somewhat different from today. You will still be trying to help your clients become more popular, but – more popular in what? Search engines will still be important, but you’ll need to be even more aware of your client’s target audience, where they prefer to congregate (i.e. what kinds of sites), and where they go to find out about the kinds of products and/or services your client offers. Put in Web 2.0 terms, vertical and social search engines would probably be more important in that kind of world than they are today.

{mospagebreak title=Web 2.0 on Steroids}

In October, Stephen Baker wrote about one of the more easily understandable concepts for Web 3.0. I like to think of it as “Web 2.0 on steroids.” Having just returned from a conference where he was part of a panel that tried to define Web 3.0, he saw three important ideas emerging:

  • Easier, cheaper, and more pervasive. According to Baker, many people who might have become involved with Web 2.0 stayed away from it because the technology was too confusing. He thinks they’ll start participating as the technology gets easier and users see it as relevant to their lives – and the networking effects of getting more people involved will make Web 3.0 more useful.
  • Always on, everywhere. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re getting closer all the time. When is the last time you were totally out of contact – no phone, no Internet, no possible way to reach you? I’d add another, possibly discomforting level to that: the ability to easily receive geography-based information (such as ads delivered to your cell phone from nearby stores, or being able to ask it “Where is the nearest burger joint?” and get an answer). The disturbing part is that whatever is serving you this information knows where you are.
  • Controlling our data. Baker believes we’ll be able to use a variety of systems “to wrap our personal data with various types of protection.” He also thinks we’ll benefit from “new systems of reputation and ranking” to “help us figure out which data sources to take seriously and which to shun.”

This vision of Web 3.0 implies a seamless integration of devices. Your data moves with you and knows where you are. We can see some of this already happening with devices such as the Slingbox from Sling Media that let you watch your cable, satellite, or DVR programming from your laptop, desktop, PDA or smartphone.

What would this vision of Web 3.0 mean for SEO? First of all, it could bring SEO and web site design even closer together. You will need to give serious consideration to what kinds of devices visitors will be using to view your information. You might even have to build different sites for different devices.

Even if you don’t go that far, you’ll need to understand how users of different parts of your site might use it differently. Is the visitor who is looking up product reviews doing it casually from their laptop – or in a store from their cell phone, making comparisons and trying to decide what to buy? The kind of browser and keywords used could give you a clue (if you’re looking right at products you’ll probably use more specific keywords), so you might want to have alternate versions of your content available for those browsing your client’s site from a smaller screen. Having an adaptable web that is ready whenever and wherever your customers are means that you’ll have to be just as adaptable in giving them content in the way that best suits their needs of the moment.

{mospagebreak title=The Semantic Web}

If the phrase “semantic web” makes your eyes glaze over or causes you to scratch your head, you can be forgiven; I didn’t really get it myself until I read a recent article in the New York Times by John Markoff titled “Entrepreneurs See a Web Guided by Common Sense.” Blogger Tim Finin critiqued that article, perhaps a little unfairly, as being “pretty much free from content from a technology perspective. The Semantic Web is mentioned, but almost in passing, for example.” Markoff was trying to get readers to understand the larger concepts of what the technology would do and how it would change people’s lives; while the nuts and bolts of how this is done are important, that wasn’t the point.

So what is the semantic web? Think of it as the Internet growing a brain, or developing artificial intelligence. The most rudimentary example of this is how Google works when you search on keywords, and especially when you give it a more advanced query such as bass –guitars, which literally translates to “find me all the documents that mention bass but not guitars.” The ideal search engine would just know that you mean bass the fish, not bass guitars.

But researchers want to make the semantic web much more sophisticated than that; they want it to actually be able to reason, and therefore give answers to much more complicated queries. It wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago, because we didn’t have the computing power to fully scour the web. As I understand it, we still don’t, quite, but we’re definitely getting there; we’re able to scan a large enough pool of information for computers to “think” about (or process through many multiple algorithms).

What does it mean to be able to search with machine-driven agents that can reason? To use the example Markoff gives, scientists hope one day that users will be able to ask questions like “I’m looking for a warm place to vacation and I have a budget of $3,000. Oh and I have an 11-year-old child.” You can ask that now, of course, but you won’t get a meaningful answer in that form; you’ll have to do the work yourself. Researchers want a search agent to be able to answer that question with a complete, meticulously planned vacation package that rivals what a human travel agent can now put together.

What does this mean for SEO? It’s hard to say. Some versions of the semantic web call for everyone to have their own specialized “agents” that scour the web, looking out for their user’s interests. That’s a significant change to the concept of a search engine, but we can already see some inklings of it with vertical search engines, social search engines, and even the custom search engines users create with Google’s new service.

As for intelligence, programs are already able to recognize certain things and what they mean –- even if it is something as simple as “this email is newer than that one, so I should put it closer to the top of this queue.” On a more advanced level, smart webcams can detect intruders and send alerts when they spot anything amiss. In this kind of world, the basics of SEO are still important (focus the content, have lots of content, have lots of FRESH content, and make sure it’s useful) –- perhaps even more important, because search agents will understand every word you write, in context. They will also understand every word your reviewers and consumers (disgruntled or otherwise) write too. After all, the social aspects, interaction, and involvement that characterized Web 2.0 aren’t simply going to go away with Web 3.0.

{mospagebreak title=The Read-Write-Execute Web}

One final vision I’ll leave you with for Web 3.0 comes from a comment on Stephen Baker’s blog that’s worth quoting at some length. Andy Carvin said he pictured Web 1.0/2.0/3.0 as paralleling the read-write-execute commands of a computer. Thinking in those terms, Web 1.0 was the read-only web; web users may have put up plenty of web sites, but they were designed with limited opportunities for interaction from visitors. Web 2.0 was the read-write web, where we started seeing “all of these services that make it easy for us to contribute content and interact with others.”

So what is the next level? “A Web 3.0 that plays on the idea of read-write-execute would be having a web that gives people the tools to craft their own tools, their own software, etc., rather than just uploading stuff to other people’s software. Why go to YouTube when you can set up your own MyTube, if you will, with the same functionality but tailored to the specific purposes of your own blog/community/website/etc. People will be able to create their own complex online social media tools with a few clicks, but remain linked to other tools and other people through tagging, RSS and all that good stuff.”

We’re already seeing some of that, most notably with Google CSE. But I believe the kinds of tools that Carvin is talking about will give the user even more power and control over functions, features, and above all, data manipulation. In a world where users have that kind of control, SEOs must be prepared to give up a little control –- or at least the perception of control. It’s the user, in the final analysis, who will decide whether what you offer them will suit their needs. Your job will be to make sure they have enough information to make an informed decision -– which, when you think about it, isn’t really that different from what you’re doing now.

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