The importance of semantics on the web

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We, as web­site mak­ers, quite often advise our clients to avoid gener­ic link text (read more,click here, etc.), and explain that more ver­bose descrip­tions help give con­text to users with screen read­ers. But using seman­tic link descrip­tions actu­al­ly helps everyone.

I recent­ly read Peter Morville’s fan­tas­tic book, Ambi­ent Find­abil­i­ty, which defined real­ly well the moti­va­tion to use seman­tic descrip­tions for links: they give the tar­get page about­ness.

Sim­ply defined, about­ness is the qual­i­ty of mean­ing; what some­thing is about is defined by its about­ness. To extend an exam­ple from Morville’s book, let’s regard a web page which con­tains W.H. Auden’s poem, Funer­al Blues:

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My work­ing week and my Sun­day rest,
My noon, my mid­night, my talk, my song,
I thought that love would last for­ev­er; I was wrong 

Although we know that the poem is about death, the word itself does­n’t appear in the poem; so how could a search engine that indexed the page know what it was about, and return it in the results of a search on that topic?

In order to gain some con­text, the search engine will look at the text of the links to that page*; so a link with the text ‘read more’ will pro­vide no con­text what­so­ev­er, where­as a link with the text ‘W.H. Auden’s poem about death’ pro­vides aboutness.

And it’s not just for our link text that seman­tics are impor­tant; the same prin­ci­ple applies with HTML — your markup gives about­ness to your con­tent. So if you’re a front-end coder, be sure to at least use appro­pri­ate con­tain­er ele­ments (the HTML5 Doc­tor can help with this), and if you want to go fur­ther take a look at the likes of Micro­for­mats and RDFa.

* Search engines look at more than this, of course, but this is the most obvi­ous example.

1 comment on
“The importance of semantics on the web”

  1. […] w/ God – Ricky Ger­vais / I like the use of the word ‘about­ness’ to describe the impor­tance of seman­tics on the web. Death to ‘Read […]