Changing Google Search through Entities

Search used to be nice and simple: you typed in a keyword, and the search engine would look for the documents that contain that keyword. Then Google came along and put those results in a qualitatively descending order, with the best results usually at the top, and took search by storm.

18 years after Google’s triumphant advance, the search query, the keyword, is still an important part of search, but no longer the only one. Google changed the search method for keywords by attempting to understand the search term and then displaying the relevant results – regardless of the specific keyword used.

The reason for this approach is clear: users want answers to questions. They don’t want to have to think about how to ask the question.

Problems with pure keyword searches

When a Londoner chimes a friendly ‘Blimey, I’m Hank. Where do ya get a decent bangers and mash with gravy ’round ‘ere?’ into their mobile – or asks Google via keyboard in the browser – then he expects the address of the nearest gastropub as the answer and not a “Sorry, I didn’t understand that”, regardless of whether the question is asked in London, or elsewhere.

To answer this question correctly, you need to understand both the meaning of bangers (an informal term for sausage) and mash (a colloquial term for mashed potato). Depending on where you find yourself in Great Britain, you may find either sausages served with mashed potato or bangers n mash appear in restaurant menus.

How can a search engine process a search query more meaningfully?

One approach to breaking down this question would be to recognise that “bangers” and “mash” are things with a fixed and unambiguous meaning. If there is information available about their relationship to other things, it becomes possible to draw logical conclusions from them.

It helps to know what something is.

What are entities?

That is exactly what is achieved with entities. An entity, in short, is a person, place or object for which there is a unique designation.

In order to map out these entities, Google bought Freebase, one of the largest databases for mapping information to objects, in 2010. In 2012, it integrated the first results of this data into search in the form of the Knowledge Graph.

It helps Google when websites enrich their own content with structured data and give Google the opportunity to expand known entities and create new ones. There is extensive documentation on what can be marked up on schema.org.

Entities make it possible to understand and use connections

Since the tasty dish mentioned above is recognised as an entity (it appears in Wikidata under the euphonious name Q2882471), it is possible to find out other regional language variants.

The entity also reveals further information about the ingredients under ‘has part’: mashed potato (Q322787).

This information could in turn be used to search for regional recipes by their ingredients in order to then deliver possible alternatives that are close to the actual request as the best possible answer.

Further examples of the use of entities to understand the query

Let’s move away from British cuisine and look at medicine. Let’s say I ask Google, ‘How long does it take to tell that I’ve caught the flu?’

In the old, keyword-centric world order, only documents with the word ‘flu’ in the text could make Google’s shortlist – so if the best information is on a page that doesn’t have the word ‘flu’ in it once, but instead refers to J06.9 throughout, Google is at a loss. With the help of the entity, however, it is possible to rank this document.

Are entities the death of search engine optimisation?

Of course not. Our example simply shows how it is possible for Google to search documents for similar entities without the actual search query having to appear in these documents.

This makes it possible to include documents in the shortlist that are of very high quality, but have not been able to rank because the keyword does not explicitly appear on the page.

In the future, it will probably be easier for high-quality, well-written and highly knowledgeable pages to be considered by Google for a higher number of search queries than is the case today.

For whom can entities be dangerous?

If ones only strategy is to take the other content in the top-10 or -20 results on Google as a point of comparison and starting point for ones own content, It may cause problems in the future.

As it becomes faster and easier for Google to understand what a search query is about, it will become better at delivering helpful information to its users.

This means that it is no longer so much a matter of whether a webmaster covers the exact search query in the text, but rather whether the text offers real added value for the user.

Steve Paine
18.03.2021